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House of Commons

Tuesday 20 March 2001

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Colchester Borough Council Bill [Lords]

Read the Third time, and passed, without amendment.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Business Rates

1. Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): What recent representations he has received from industry and business concerning business rates. [152907]

The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Ms Hilary Armstrong): We have received many responses from business to the proposals for business rates set out in the Green Paper "Modernising Local Government Finance". A summary of the responses has been published on the Department's website. We will publish our conclusions in a White Paper later this year.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Will she confirm that the Government's plan for a supplementary business rate, which could increase the business rate by up to 5 per cent. for hard-working enterprises, is to be scrapped, as reported in this morning's Financial Times? Will she now endorse the Opposition's call for a rates holiday for tourism and other businesses cruelly hit by the foot and mouth outbreak? Finally, will she endorse the Conservative policy of cutting business rates for vulnerable rural shops, post offices, pubs and garages by an average of £1,000 a year over and above existing rate relief?

Ms Armstrong: On the first question, the supplementary rate was an issue for consultation. As I told the hon. Gentleman, we shall publish our conclusions in the White Paper; he will simply have to wait for that. In response to the problems that businesses in rural areas are suffering from because of the foot and mouth outbreak, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment will make a statement later, and the hon. Gentleman will have to wait for that. The Conservative party's proposals are interesting, but I suggest that he looks at the Rating (Former Agricultural Premises and Rural Shops) Bill,

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which the Government have published and presented to the House, as it will give additional rate relief to all food shops and to certain garages and pubs in small villages. Given his interest in the motor trade and the Leader of the Opposition's interest in the pub trade, I am sure that they will support our proposals.

Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble): There was a consultation meeting in Tarleton on the rural White Paper, and the proposals to give 50 per cent. rate relief to small rural businesses were widely welcomed by many of the people at that meeting. I urge my right hon. Friend to move swiftly to a conclusion on the consultation process. How quickly does she think that the Government will be able to implement those urgently needed reforms?

Ms Armstrong: My hon. Friend has shown a very great and knowledgeable interest in this matter. As he says, the proposals on rate relief for small businesses are out for consultation, and we hope to bring them to a conclusion quickly. I am sure that he discovered at the meeting that he mentioned that, more than ever, people in the business world want a stable economy and no more boom and bust, and they know that they will get that from the Labour party.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): From what the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) said, it would be hard to believe that he supported the Government who introduced the uniform business rate. It was iniquitous then, and it is iniquitous now. Does the right hon. Lady agree that it penalises smaller retailers to the benefit of the larger out-of-town stores, so ably represented by the Conservative party? Is not it time that it was radically reformed and replaced with something fairer, which would also support traders in our town centres, not just those in villages?

Ms Armstrong: I expect that, on that basis, the hon. Gentleman will fully support our proposals for rate relief for small businesses.

New Roads (Pollution)

2. Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton): What plans he has to review the provision of new motorways and bypasses against pollution and other environmental criteria; and if he will make a statement. [152908]

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher): The environmental impact of every new motorway and bypass proposal is assessed in accordance with the relevant European directives as implemented in the UK. We use the new approach to appraisal technique--NATA, as it is called--to assess all road proposals in our targeted programme of improvements. NATA takes account of sustainable development principles: environmental, economic and social factors are all properly examined and evaluated in a clear and consistent way.

Mr. O'Brien: I thank my right hon. Friend for that response, but will he take into consideration what happened in my constituency with the diversion of the A1 through Ferry Bridge? A public inquiry was held in the mid-1990s, but the evidence submitted on the

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environmental situation under planning regulation 10 was at least five or six years old at that time. The road will be built at some time in the next four or five years, so we are considering evidence that was submitted at least 15 years before it will be built.

As significant changes have been made in the control of the environment on motorways, will the issue be reviewed when the Government consider the construction of new motorways and diversions?

Mr. Meacher: I am aware that my hon. Friend has been assiduous in his criticism of the A1M Ferry Bridge to Hook Moor road. As he knows, an environmental impact statement was carried out originally and the project was then appraised in the 1998 roads review, using the NATA technique. Of course, when there are significant changes in the local environment, the appraisal has to be updated. I accept that that is not the reply that my hon. Friend has received in the past, but I repeat that, if changes can be assessed as significant in their environmental impact, I would expect a further application of the new approach to appraisal technique to be used.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): How does the Secretary of State square the policy of completing a network of motorway service areas at 30-mile intervals, as reflected in the decision to allow the building of a service station in the Meriden gap green belt, with the Prime Minister's assertions that we need to put business, technology and environmental protection together?

Mr. Meacher: That is exactly what lies behind a single appraisal summary table, which looks at issues of environment, economy, safety, accessibility and integration. They are very different in their applications and an attempt has to be made in every case to weigh them and to decide where the balance lies on which the decision should be made. I cannot speak about the case that the hon. Lady has mentioned. However, I am sure that that exercise was thoroughly undertaken and that the decision reflected not the fact that there may be environmental disbenefits, but that, on balance, the decision should be in favour of proceeding.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye): Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in finding a balance, it is important to take into account the relief of an urban environment as well as protecting the rural environment? Consequently, when Ministers consider the proposals for access to Hastings and integrated transport, including the bypass, will that be a consideration in their minds?

Mr. Meacher: I can certainly assure my hon. Friend, who has been diligent in his pursuit of this issue, that we shall consider that case extremely carefully. All that I can say is that, at this point, due process is being undertaken and it is not for Ministers to intervene in any way. We shall await the result of that process.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): The Minister will be aware that a restoration project is going ahead for the Lichfield-Hatherton canal. However, is he aware that his colleague, the Deputy Prime Minister, overruled the Government inspector and said that the new Birmingham northern relief road should cut the canal in half? Will the

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Minister intervene with his right hon. Friend, overturn his decision, and try to restore the Labour party's promise that there should be an integrated and green transport policy?

Mr. Meacher: The Birmingham northern relief road was planned under the previous Administration and the decision to go ahead was taken under the previous Administration. We inherited that decision and, on the balance of considerations, we have decided to proceed. The hon. Gentleman will know that the construction of the road has not yet begun, but it is designed to relieve congestion on the M6 north of Birmingham. As I and many others have experienced, that congestion is intense. Of course we accept that the road is controversial in that there are environmental impacts, but I repeat that, on the balance of considerations, relieving congestion in a major way must be weighed against the environmental effects. I believe that we have found the best solution.

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