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Mr. Blunt: And Reigate.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Indeed, and my hon. Friend mentioned some of the problems in the more urban areas. A particular problem is that of gap funding. As my hon. Friend so ably told the House, £3.6 billion was provided through gap funding. If there is a problem with the European Community, will the Minister advise us what is being done about it? There is a problem with objective 1 funding in Liverpool--as I think the hon. Member for Leeds, Central pointed out.

What is happening in the European Court case regarding the discretionary powers of the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions to call in planning applications? As the right hon. Gentleman has asked for all applications for larger developments on greenfield sites to be called in, that could cause particular problems. The Opposition want to streamline and simplify the planning system. At present, one structure plan is hardly being completed before the next one is due to come into effect. That is a crazy situation--it needs to be simplified and sorted out.

Among other problems mentioned by hon. Members--especially the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall--is that of VAT harmonisation. One of the best ways to regenerate our inner cities and, indeed, our rural areas is tax incentives. VAT is a major tax incentive. The Government have come up with a scheme for VAT on houses that have been empty for 10 years, but that is an Aunt Sally; there are not many houses that have been continuously empty for 10 years. It would be much more constructive to harmonise VAT rates both on houses built on brownfield and greenfield sites and on residential conversions.

This has been a useful debate during which we have been able to concentrate on some of the real issues. I hope that the White Papers will lead not only to spoken and written words--to the bits of paper that tend to shower down on all our institutions--but to real action. What we want from the Government is not soundbites but sound action.

2.10 pm

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher): I have always thought that Friday debates were rather better than many other debates in the House because they are generally more thoughtful and less confrontational. This was certainly one of those debates--and a rather good one.

I welcome the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) to the Opposition Front Bench. He made so many interventions as a Whip in the Committee that considered the Countryside and Rights of Way Act

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2000 that I had not realised that he was not already a member of the Opposition Front-Bench team. He made a very fair and constructive speech today; I hope that there will be many more like it. In particular, I should very much like to echo his praise for the one nation concept and for the inspiring speech--he was good enough to say so, too--made by my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy). That was not quite our experience of the Thatcher Government, but I am glad that he is now a full-hearted convert. With the exception of the opening speech made by the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green), this has been a constructive debate. There is a significant degree of consensus about the solution, which suggests that the Government have got it about right.

I welcome the opening speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), and congratulate him on his excellent chairmanship of the Environment Sub-Committee of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs. The Sub-Committee has made a considerable contribution to the production of the urban and rural White Papers.

I agree with my hon. Friend about the interdependence of urban and rural areas and that, in many cases, the exodus to the countryside is beginning to be slowed down. I agree about the importance of addressing rural poverty, which lies at the heart of the rural White Paper. Even if such poverty is difficult to identify, it is certainly a major issue. I also agree about the need to keep money in circulation in deprived local communities--a point that was echoed by the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed), who spoke for the Liberal Democrats.

Several hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish, referred to gap funding. I understand that the European Commission has formally indicated that it has approved the direct development scheme. I also understand that written confirmation is due imminently and that, when it has been received, the regional development agencies can begin to operate the scheme. Perhaps it is risky to give specific dates where the Commission is involved, but it has said that we can expect a decision on the two gap funding schemes by the end of February.

The Commission recently approved two gap funding schemes administered by the Welsh Development Agency. Those schemes are virtually identical to ours, and there is no reason why they should not be approved by the end of February. The Commission is still considering the neighbourhood renewal scheme and the environmental regeneration scheme, but we are pressing it for an early response.

On housing--clearly, a key issue--my hon. Friend proposed the pretty radical solution that the Government might be prepared to underwrite house prices. It is unlikely that we will be able to adhere to such a policy, but much else that we are doing bears strongly on the issue. He mentioned VAT. The VAT on the conversion of residential properties will be cut to 5 per cent. That cut is worth about £2,500 for someone spending £20,000 on converting a house into flats. Cutting VAT on conversions is expected to create another 1,000 homes a year, eventually increasing the number of people living in converted property by up to 40 per cent.

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My hon. Friend also mentioned compulsory purchase orders. We have consulted on CPOs and are taking steps to help local authorities to use them, and the urban White Paper states that we will introduce the necessary legislation when parliamentary time is available.

My hon. Friend also referred to parks and open spaces. We feel particularly strongly about this issue and we have comprehensive proposals to improve parks, play areas and open spaces. I do not wish to be overly political, because Opposition Members have not been in this debate, but it is true that, under the previous Administration, spending on parks fell by about 20 per cent. in real terms in the six years before 1997. We have turned things round, and net expenditure is beginning to rise. It rose from just over £500 million to nearly £550 million in the latest years for which we have figures. The spending review 2000 included a 3 per cent. real-terms increase in local government revenue funding for this purpose and, on top of that, £96 million is being provided for parks and green spaces. We are committed to doing what my hon. Friend asked.

I understand why the hon. Member for Ashford is not present, but that does not mean that I shall respond any less forcefully. The hon. Gentleman said that he could not espy any common themes. However, the general view that emerged in the debate is that there are common themes. Our policy is concerned with the things that matter most to people, wherever they live--good jobs, decent housing, access to health and education and a good quality environment. It does not matter whether they live in urban or rural areas; that is what people want.

Both White Papers are also about empowering people. That important theme has come out of the debate. I agree that bureaucrats and Ministers should not tell people what to do. Both White Papers contain significant mechanisms to increase local empowerment, giving people the tools to make their own decisions.

The hon. Member for Ashford suggested that we had neglected Lord Rogers' recommendations. The hon. Gentleman could hardly be more wrong. We wholeheartedly support Lord Rogers' vision for an urban renaissance. That is demonstrated by the positive response that the White Paper gave to his recommendations. He welcomed the White Paper as a positive step forward, and he disagreed with certain commentators' assessments of the extent to which it had responded to his recommendations.

In fact, we have rejected only a handful of Lord Rogers' recommendations. All the others have been taken forward in full or in part, and that was made abundantly clear in the White Paper. Even when we have rejected recommendations--and we have--it is not because we disagree with the objectives behind them, but because we believe that there are better ways of achieving them.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Meacher: I will give way, but I fear that it will be for the last time.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: If the Minister believes that the urban White Paper will have such an effect on the inner

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cities, why was there not an urban regeneration Bill in the Queen's Speech to implement those recommendations in the White Paper that need legislation?

Mr. Meacher: I shall come to the implementation plans for both White Papers. I am glad to say that, in the next month or two, the whole roll-out of the programme for implementing the recommendations in both White Papers will be published.

The hon. Member for Ashford complained that there were a multitude of schemes, a plethora of initiatives and top level bureaucratic stuff as though we shall not deliver precise proposals. I strongly disagree with him. For example, there is a comprehensive £1 billion package of national taxation measures to deliver the urban White Paper in towns and cities and to increase investment in urban areas. The package includes an exemption from stamp duty for all property transactions in disadvantaged communities, accelerated payable tax credits for cleaning up contaminated land, 100 per cent. capital allowances for creating flats over shops for letting and a package of VAT reforms to encourage additional conversion of properties for residential use. There is to be a third millennium community, with four more to follow, and up to 12 more urban regeneration companies, which is relevant to the question just asked by the hon. Member for Cotswold. As I said, we also have a comprehensive programme to improve the quality of parks, play areas and urban spaces.

On the promotion of economic development, we are giving regional development agencies a strength and focus and--something that they have all asked for--a significant increase in funding and greater budgetary flexibility. A range of proposals to reform the tax system will provide better incentives for boosting investment in enterprise, especially in under-invested areas. We are trying to create the conditions for e-commerce to thrive. For example, we have launched UK online. I could say more about such developments, but I am, of course, truncating my contribution.

No one has mentioned the important fact that we are providing substantial extra resources for services. There will be an additional £33 billion a year for key services by 2003-04, which is on top of the £106 billion baseline. New policies and programmes will deliver step changes in all services that are essential for our quality of life. If anyone doubts whether that will be monitored, those initiatives are backed by public service agreement targets that, for the first time, include floor targets, which specify minimum standards to be achieved in all areas. Local authorities that cover the most deprived areas, which are at the centre of the debate, will benefit from the new neighbourhood renewal fund of £800 million in 2003-04. That will help to improve services in poorer communities.

Let me ram my point home. This is about delivering. We are establishing a new Cabinet Committee on urban affairs and policy to follow up and deliver the White Paper. We will hold an urban summit in 2002--if we are re-elected--to celebrate progress and ensure that implementation is on track. We will issue a report on the state of our towns and cities in 2005, which will give a comprehensive picture of the progress that has been made. I reject the idea that we are simply providing a plethora of rhetorical initiatives, because that is not the case.

The hon. Member for Ashford criticised us on police numbers. In the last four years of the previous Government, slightly more than 1,100 police officers

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left the force. Some £15 million from the police modernisation fund has been earmarked to improve rural policing. A further £30 million will be available next year.

The hon. Gentleman also criticised our position on best and more versatile agricultural land. The rural White Paper makes it clear that we will continue to protect the countryside for its own sake by strictly controlling development in the open countryside. However, rather than centralise those powers--and many Conservative Members objected to centralisation--and make them automatic, we think that elected local authorities are best placed to balance agricultural quality with other factors, such as landscape, wildlife and recreational value, all of which are relevant when considering alternative sites.

We all know that agriculture is experiencing its worst crisis for 50 or 60 years. The causes go deep and wide. There is more money for agri-environment schemes and for marketing grants to help to modernise agricultural holdings. There is also help for planning, so that farmers are able to use surplus farm buildings, and for diversification, marketing and skill training. The hon. Member for Ashford was good enough to mention small and medium-sized abattoirs. There is an important protection for those. Time-limited rate relief for new small farm diversification projects will also help.

The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) mentioned post offices. We have accepted all 24 recommendations of the performance and innovation unit report on the future of the post office network. The Government have demonstrated their continuing commitment to the maintenance of a nationwide network of post offices. We fully recognise the valuable role played by post offices in local communities, especially for elderly and less mobile people. We are the first Government to give a commitment that we will maintain that national network in rural areas. That is why we have ring-fenced funding in the spending review. We have set aside £270 million of new investment over the next three years to start-- not to finish--the implementation of the PIU recommendations.

It is important that I respond to the hon. Gentleman's comments about transport. We are providing the means for local people to get the transport services that they need. Let us be clear that transport in rural areas was decimated under the previous Government. We are providing £239 million over the next three years for a range of new and improved travel services in rural areas.

I shall mention just one important innovation--new money to help rural parishes meet their travel needs. I agree with much of what has been said. It is all very well to provide for an increase in buses--my goodness, they are needed, and we stand by that--but, above all, people want to decide what local transport provision is most appropriate to their needs. That is why we are providing £15 million over three years for grants of up to £10,000 to fund transport services such as car clubs, social car schemes and support for community transport for each parish settlement that applies and wins its funding.

I was asked about help for rural motorists. Motorists in rural areas will benefit from the measures announced in the Chancellor's pre-Budget statement to reduce taxation for motorists. All fuel duties will be frozen in cash terms

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until 2001. We intend to reduce duty on low-sulphur fuels and remove the 2p per litre premium on lead replacement petrol.

We were all left agog, waiting for the wonderful presentation of a new rural manifesto. We were a little disappointed. When it was finally presented, it turned out to consist of the removal of the RDAs, the ending of regional planning guidance and the end of housebuilding targets. That would simply undermine economic regeneration. As with the previous Tory Government, it would lead to a steep decline in housebuilding and the resultant misery that was so much a mark of that Government.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner) focused on affordable housing. He was right to do so. We are doubling from 800 to 1,600 a year the number of affordable homes for small settlements of fewer than 3,000 people funded by the Housing Corporation's rural programme. That represents an increase from 3.5 to 6.5 per cent. of the total programme.

Through the planning system, local authorities will be able to negotiate the right element of affordable housing in new developments. We propose to give local authorities the discretion to charge the full council tax on second homes and to use the extra revenue for more affordable homes or local services. I strongly support that.

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