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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill): Parliament has given the Mayor, Transport for London and the other London local authorities powers in the Greater London Authority Act 1999 to introduce congestion charging. The Mayor has chosen to use those powers and he is now consulting on proposals for a scheme in central London.
Mr. Ottaway: The Minister is correct in saying that this is a matter for the Greater London Authority. With that in mind, may I draw his attention to the front page of the Labour party's London manifesto for the elections that took place last May? Will he explain what exactly was meant by the words "no congestion charges"?
Mr. Hill: That is perfectly simple. It was the position of the Labour candidate in those elections that he would oppose not the principle of congestion charging, but its introduction in the first four years of mayoral tenure. In practice, the legislation is absolutely simple and straightforward. The Mayor is entitled to introduce congestion charging proposals and the evidence is that they are widely supported in London--[Interruption.] I hear cries of scepticism. Let me point out that the London boroughs of Kensington and Chelsea, of Westminster and of Wandsworth, all Conservative boroughs--[Interruption.]
Mr. Hill: Those three Tory boroughs in London have opposed the introduction of the scheme and poured money into fighting it. However, when the borough of Kensington and Chelsea conducted a consultation exercise, the result was a majority in favour of charging. Further evidence emerged in a MORI survey of senior city executives published in February 2001--it revealed that 59 per cent. agreed that a system of congestion charging would benefit London. The Government are broadly supportive of the Mayor's proposals and so, it appears, is much of London opinion.
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): The hon. Gentleman failed to explain the sheer hypocrisy of the Labour party's position in its London election manifesto. After four wasted years on the tube, during which the Government have failed to raise a single penny of the private investment that was promised, will the Minister tell the House what exactly the Government have done for public transport in London since they were elected?
The Conservatives built the docklands light railway, the docklands light railway extension, the Jubilee line extension, the Croydon tramlink and the Heathrow express. Those were Conservative projects. What has the Labour party done? It promised that things would only get better, but they have got worse. The Labour party has failed Londoners, failed the London tube and delivered London to a standstill.
Mr. Hill: That was a pretty good rant from the hon. Gentleman. However, in addition to seeing through the completion of the Jubilee line extension, the docklands light railway, and the introduction of the Croydon tramlink, the Government have introduced the £60 million London bus initiative. Additionally, we have pumped no less than £1.5 billion into London's underground system. There is no need to look into the crystal ball to find out about Labour's achievement--hon. Members can read it in the book.
The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Ms Hilary Armstrong): The Government have set targets to improve outcomes on employment, education, health, crime and housing in our most deprived areas. For the first time, public services will be judged on how well they are narrowing the gap between those areas and the rest, rather than on national averages.
Ms Prentice: Is my right hon. Friend aware that Downham ward in my constituency is among the 10 per cent. most deprived wards in the country? The money that is going into neighbourhood renewal is being used effectively by all concerned: the council, the community and the local police. If the local police achieve the targets
Ms Armstrong: The money that is going to Lewisham is in recognition of the number of people living in wards in the borough that are among the 10 per cent. most deprived in the country. I assure my hon. Friend that the targets that we set are minimum targets. Indeed, last week Lewisham council signed its local public service agreement, which extends those minimum targets and sets even higher targets. When people achieve those higher targets, they will be rewarded.
Ms Armstrong: There were about six questions in the hon. Gentleman's remarks. I can reassure him that it is precisely to overcome different initiatives undertaken by different Departments that we have instituted the neighbourhood renewal programme, which brings all Departments together, nationally and locally, to make sure that they deliver effectively better outcomes for local people.
Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton): Given that my constituency lies at the heart of what the centre for the analysis of social exclusion deems the biggest poverty cluster in the United Kingdom, and given that the local Liberal Democrat council is unable or unwilling to access programmes for neighbourhoods in my constituency such as Anfield, Kirkdale and Walton, can my right hon. Friend suggest to my constituents ways in which they can gain rightful and proper access to the excellent programmes introduced by the Government?
Ms Armstrong: It is precisely because we recognise those levels of deprivation in Liverpool that the neighbourhood renewal fund will provide the city with an additional £45 million over the next three years. That must be spent in such a way as to ensure that at least the floor targets are delivered. People in my hon. Friend's constituency can be assured that they will have a voice in the local strategic partnership. Their voice will be heard, which will ensure that their anxieties and aspirations are properly addressed.
The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher): The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 introduced provisions for the better management and protection of areas of outstanding natural beauty, including requiring a management plan for every AONB and providing an option for the creation of conservation boards. Planning protection for AONBs has been confirmed as being at the highest level, alongside that for national parks.
Mr. Edwards: I thank my right hon. Friend for all his efforts while piloting the legislation through the House, and assure him that it is greatly appreciated by all those in my constituency who live and work in the Wye valley area of outstanding natural beauty, and by people from all over the world who visit the Wye valley. Can he give some indication of the timetable for introducing the measures that he outlined?
Mr. Meacher: Yes. The main requirement relates to the introduction of the regulations that will govern the mapping process. I have already said that the mapping process must be concluded by 2005, although it is my intention that it should be concluded significantly earlier than that. It depends on the initial mapping exercise that the Countryside Agency is to carry out in the north-west and south-east of the country this summer. In the light of that, we will decide whether to proceed to open up areas of the country on a regional basis or by land type.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): I welcome the Minister's reply to his hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards). Will he agree to give the same planning protection to sites of special scientific interest, including that which is identified along the line of the proposed pylons for which his Government have given approval and which go right through a SSSI? Will he agree to give SSSIs the same planning protection as areas of outstanding natural beauty?
Mr. Meacher: The CROW Act, as it is called--the Countryside and Rights of Way Act--provides greatly strengthened protection for SSSIs, not just for AONBs. The degree of protection compares with that given to grade listed housing. In other words, if damage is done, the person responsible for it can be taken to court, prosecuted and forced to return the site to a pristine condition at his or her expense. That is a clear protection, which has never existed before and now applies to all SSSIs.
Mr. Neil Turner (Wigan): I welcome the speech that my right hon. Friend made earlier this month, particularly the creation of the pathfinder forces to be administered by the Tidy Britain Group, an organisation that has already shown extraordinarily good judgment by siting its national headquarters at Wigan pier. Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the features that make our areas of outstanding natural beauty so attractive are the canals and
Mr. Meacher: My hon. Friend makes a serious point. I am concerned at the state of many riverbanks, and the surface of rivers is often badly littered. There are disputes about who carries that responsibility. I am keen to introduce as soon as possible new regulations or legislation that will ensure that there are adequate powers to deal with the issue. I have already had it brought to my attention, particularly in regard to the Mersey basin, but it applies to many other parts of the country. River basins that are badly litter strewn must be cleaned up.
Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): Has the right hon. Gentleman had a chance to think about access to the countryside, particularly to areas of outstanding natural beauty, and how that would impinge on the present problems that the countryside is experiencing as a result of foot and mouth disease? It is possible that the Prime Minister will soon call a general election. Rather than cutting and running with a general election, does the Minister intend to stay in his Ministry during the election to make sure that the problems in our areas of outstanding natural beauty, which are causing concern to my constituents, are dealt with by the Government?
Mr. Meacher: That question was rather silly and over the top. Of course there is a very serious point about access to the countryside during the foot and mouth outbreak. In a few minutes, I will make a statement about that. As we stated in the guidelines that we issued on Friday, there are many parts of the country, including areas of outstanding natural beauty, which people can safely visit, as long as they abide by the rules, which are to avoid all contact with livestock, keep away from farmland and, above all, strictly obey the "Keep out" signs.