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Mike Gapes rose

Mrs. Laing: For the sake of time, I am afraid that I cannot give way. I must finish so that other hon. Members can speak.

People who work in my constituency do not get a London allowance, but they have to pay London house prices, London transport prices and all the other high costs of living that are borne by people in and around London. That has caused particular problems with teacher shortages and with recruitment and retention in other public sector jobs. We are reaching crisis point. It is not surprising that people travel the extra couple of miles down the road to work if they can earn an extra £5,000 for doing so.

I do not think that the Government are even aware of the problem. They like to draw lines around areas so that they can point to London and the prosperous home counties, but they forget that there is a bit in between. It is not just the green belt that we have to protect; the communities in the towns and villages around Epping Forest need to be protected as well. It is important that the Government recognise the particular problems that we face because we have to cope with London's economic conditions even though we are not part of it.

The Government can deal with those problems. That is the theme of the debate. Problems are inevitable in some aspects of everyday life, and successive Governments have tried to tackle them with varying degrees of success. However, in some areas, a simple stroke of the pen would change Government policy and make a difference. My hon. Friends have mentioned many such areas this evening, and I have drawn attention to further examples. I sincerely hope that the Minister and his colleagues will listen to what we have said when using Opposition time to highlight the problems of London and the south-east.

7.50 pm

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing). I lived in Debden in her constituency from the age of one, having spent my first year in Woodford Bridge—I believe it, too, falls within her constituency—where my grandmother lived all her life. I attended Buckhurst Hill county high school—also in her constituency—which is now the Guru Gobind Singh Khalsa college. Our constituencies are in close proximity to each other.

I remember the hon. Lady's predecessor, the would-be Mayor of London, Steven Norris, campaigning vigorously with local Epping Forest Conservatives against the boundary change proposal made before the 1992 to 1994 boundary changes to the London boroughs. They campaigned to keep 10,000 people in the Epping Forest constituency out of London—there were placards on Fencepiece road on the border between Redbridge and Epping Forest saying, "Keep us out of London! We don't want to be moved into London!" Perhaps some of those

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people who do not get London allowances now—the ones on whose behalf the hon. Lady complains—would have acted differently had they known that one of the consequences of staying in "leafy Essex", as the campaign put it, would be that they would lose out financially. The campaign was a nonsense. Not least among its effects was that pensioners lost out on concessionary bus fares. Another effect was that the London borough of Redbridge went from three parliamentary constituencies down to two, and the former Conservative Chief Whip had to decamp from Wanstead and Woodford to become a Hampshire Member of Parliament—but that is another story, and not one for this debate.

The terms of the motion, which refers to

are interesting. I do not know whether when drafting the motion the parliamentary Conservative party consulted the Conservative group on Redbridge council, which, with its Liberal Democrat allies, increased council tax in Redbridge from 2.3 per cent. to 6.2 per cent. at last week's budget meeting. We in Redbridge have a hung council, and the Labour group's proposals were defeated. A second meeting was necessary—the first having ended in disarray at 2 o'clock in the morning—to get the budget through. That was the result of the Conservatives and the Liberals, as they have on so many borough issues over the past few months, working in league against the Labour council, which has no overall majority, although that might change in May.

In this debate on London and the south-east, I shall focus on Redbridge. Often there is a polarisation of views, with an image produced of the south-east that has in the middle the great wen—the urban centre, London. In fact, many outer-London boroughs, including mine, have areas with inner-city problems as well as areas that are among the most affluent in the country. Woodford Green, which the hon. Member for Epping Forest will know well, is an example of such an area. Analyses to determine the location of areas of deprivation generally take a borough approach, so Redbridge loses out.

The Conservative Government kept Redbridge out of the LIZ—London implementation zone—for the health service: we got nothing directly from that. We received money only as a side-product of the joint Redbridge and Waltham Forest health authority, even though at the time our mental health services were deplorable. We got some help, but only incidentally, on the back of Waltham Forest. We have not had a successful single regeneration budget bid, but again we got some money because of the joint health authority links.

We are not in the Thames gateway, although our local borough authority is part of the Thames gateway group of authorities, so we get none of that funding. Redbridge is not in the Lea valley. Unlike our neighbouring borough, Newham, we are not able to siphon millions of pounds of European money each year, so regeneration in Stratford, which I welcome, cannot be matched by regeneration in Ilford town centre, which around the railway station has problems that need serious attention.

I therefore welcome the fact that in the sure start scheme at least, the Government have recognised our problems. Loxford ward in my constituency is receiving sure start money. My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw) mentioned that, so I will not repeat it, save to say that it is an extremely

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important initiative. Furthermore, when we compare the data on central Government support for Redbridge borough under the annual local authority settlements we find that, overall, the revenue spending allowed to Redbridge has increased from £207.5 million in 1997 to £273.5 million in the current financial year ending next month. That is an excellent improvement brought about by a Labour Government.

It is interesting to note that the annual central Government grant to Redbridge was cut by the Tories from £160 million in 1992 to £142 million in 1997, whereas Labour has not only restored the grant, but increased it so that we now get £181 million—an extra £37 million on the amount left us by the Conservatives. When Conservative Redbridge councillors and their little Liberal Democrat echoes complain about lack of funding forcing them to push up local council taxes, they should remember that the Labour Government have given more money than the Liberal Democrats ever asked for, and certainly more than would have been given by the Conservatives, whose record is one of cuts to the provision available to the people of my borough. In some years, Redbridge was actually capped during the extremely difficult period in which we faced changing social needs, greater demands, and additional burdens imposed by the Conservative Government.

Those restrictions are gone and my borough is receiving more central Government funding to meet the needs of its people. Of course, it is not enough—it is never enough. We can always say we do not have enough to do everything, but I am pleased by the Government's actions. I praise my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions for his work to give greater emphasis to local government and his support for local government since taking up his current post. The media would do well to comment on that, rather than on tittle-tattle and personalities and all the garbage that we have seen in the Daily Mail and other publications in recent weeks.

Redbridge has also benefited from increases in capital expenditure. The Labour Government have increased education capital spending from £9.3 million in 1997 to £27.5 million in the current financial year. The new private finance initiative-built Oaks Park secondary school is open, with pupils, even though it was delayed a year because the Tory-Liberal coalition on the council objected to the terms of the contract, so the kids started in portakabins—another victory resulting from the Liberal Democrats' ability to swing decisions in a hung council.

Redbridge has benefited from the valuable support that the current Secretary of State for Education and Skills gave when she was a Minister of State at that Department to the Ilford Ursuline high school. That school, a Catholic girls' high school, chose to leave the independent sector and come under the local authority as a voluntary aided faith school, whose admissions criteria state its desire to be a school that reflects the community. The school's policy is that 23 of the 90 children admitted every year are non-Catholics. If I had been able to speak in the debate on faith schools a few weeks ago I would have pointed out that the school, which has a Catholic ethos, provides facilities for Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Jewish and Christian young ladies.

I have to declare an interest, as I have three daughters in different schools in the London borough of Redbridge. All of them are doing well; Redbridge's education results

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are the best in London and the third best in the country because of the excellent work of local teachers, support staff and people in the local authority who care about those matters. The Labour council assumed minority control in 1994, after the one-party East German-style regime that we had for 30 years. When it did so, there were virtually no nursery places in Redbridge; for the first three years, it made enormous efforts to put its own resources into nursery provision. With the support of the Labour Government, we have been able to accelerate that programme and now have nursery units and nursery classes in all the borough's primary schools; Redbridge now supports a much larger proportion of its young people in nursery education, whereas it had a deplorable record under the Tory council for many years.

The Tory philosophy in Redbridge was low spending, low provision and keeping the council tax down; that is how the Tories ran the borough, with serious consequences. The demography has changed—the population has become younger in the south of the borough, whereas there is an ageing population in other areas—but we have not had support from social services and have not had resources generally to deal with those problems. Historically low levels of spending have had a knock-on consequence over the years. We hope that that is now beginning to be put right; the Government are putting more resources into Redbridge and recognise its social needs. I hope that the 2001 census will provide further ammunition for arguments about rapid social and demographic change, particularly in Ilford.

I want to make two or three further points. As has been mentioned, there is a serious problem with housing in London. Redbridge has a high level of owner-occupation; in fact, my constituency has 78 per cent. owner- occupation. We have almost no social housing. Local government boundary changes made in 1994 meant that much social housing—council housing on the Becontree and Padnall estates—was taken out of the borough and put under the control of Barking and Dagenham. The Tory philosophy in Redbridge was to sell council housing, even before that became the general ethos; Tory councils were doing so in Redbridge in the 1960s. The Tories did not build any council houses for years, and refused to have social housing of any form. Only in the 1990s did they accept the advent of housing associations.

We therefore have a serious lack of housing, and many of the new developments have been in private housing. Land has been sold, so few sites are available for new social housing; on top of that, there is serious demand for such housing. When I first became an MP, people from inner-London boroughs such as Westminster, Hackney and Tower Hamlets who had been placed in private rented accommodation in Redbridge came to me with their problems. I now have constituents who are homeless through no fault of their own—the landlord sells the property or there is some other change—and are placed in bed-and-breakfast accommodation in Westcliff-on-Sea and Southend-on-Sea; I even had one case in Great Yarmouth. As a result of those changes, there is disruption to people's education, as well as social, environmental and economic consequences. There should be greater priority for social housing in London and help should be provided, not just in areas with big brownfield sites, but in areas such as mine, where local authorities want to buy up private rented accommodation and bring it into the public or socially owned sector, where housing associations operate

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renovation schemes—a foyer is opening in my constituency to advertise such a scheme—and where there are attempts to introduce affordable housing for key workers.

The problem is difficult because, as has been revealed this week, there has been a significant increase in the number of people moving to London from other parts of the country. As usual, I see that there are no members of the Scottish National party in the Chamber. Interestingly, a report published the other day said that people are fleeing Scotland—I do not know whether just from SNP constituencies—to live in London.

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