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8.3 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): The problem with these debates, particularly with the prospect of a long—in fact, over-long—recess ahead of us, is always one of what to identify as the key issues facing our constituencies. It would certainly have been possible for me to have spoken at length about the findings of the report on foot and mouth disease that were announced this afternoon, the catastrophic effect that the disease had on the whole of the west country's rural economy, and the implications of those findings for the treatment of future catastrophic epizootics such as foot and mouth. Suffice it to say, however, that the report underlines the lack of an early application of the advice of epidemiologists with relevant experience. It also illustrates that the ongoing paucity of numbers in the state veterinary service has to be rectified, and that the present import controls are insufficient for the task and not commensurate with those of other countries from which we could usefully learn lessons.

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It would also be possible to talk at length about the formula for funding local authorities, to which the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Virginia Bottomley) referred earlier. Indeed, many of my constituents will have looked with care at what the Chancellor of the Exchequer had to say in his statement on the comprehensive spending review last Monday, and will have read with interest the funding figure of £4,900 per pupil by 2006 that he promised. They will compare that with the present funding for a child in Somerset, which I believe is £2,529.18, and will assume that the funding per child is going to double in the space of three years. Nothing would please me more than to have it confirmed from the Dispatch Box tonight that that is the case, but my fear is that it will not be. I fear that this is another misapprehension on the part of my constituents. Indeed, the more I look at the proposals for the reform of the local authority funding formula, the more I see that they actually put those authorities that are already massively disadvantaged—in terms of the funding that they receive for education and other services—at an even greater disadvantage on most of the options offered. That is a matter of considerable concern.

I could also raise the matter of care homes, as did the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey. I have to say quite plainly to the Minister that the care home sector is in crisis in my county and in most of the south of Britain. The measures that have been taken so far have not been adequate for the task. The funding is still insufficient to keep the private sector care homes in place, which means that there are huge problems in store for our social services departments and for the acute services in our hospitals.

I could also ask for further information about the universal bank and the post office card account. I am not convinced that they will be ready by 1 April next year, and if they are not, that will have a catastrophic effect on the sub-post office network in my constituency, in all rural areas, and, indeed, in urban areas.

I want to focus, however, on another roads issue. It is one with which I think that the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), will be familiar, because it deals with the A303, which runs through my constituency and on to the south-west. The hon. Gentleman will know that the long-awaited south-west regional multi-modal study report—the SWARMMS report—has now been published, and that it contains proposals for the A303. He will also know that there are controversial aspects to the proposals relating to the road where it runs across the top of the Blackdown hills, and to the alternative plans, proposed by consultants, for the A358 to Taunton to be dualled, and to direct traffic by that route.

I have to say to the Minister that I do not wish to debate the rights and wrongs of dualling over the Blackdowns; I have strong opinions on that, but those hills are not in my constituency. I see huge merit in the proposal for the A358 route, because it would provide not only the least environmentally damaging option but an additional north-south route, which the despoliation of the Blackdowns would not offer.

My concern, however, is to separate out from that issue the improvements to the A303 between Sparkford and Ilchester that have long been agreed—not just considered, but agreed. That is a piece of road that needs improvement not to increase its capacity, as most measures propose, but to make it safe. It is a place where there are fatal accidents

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every year, and there will be fatal accidents there this year as the holiday season comes upon us, with the huge increase in traffic from London and the south-east seeking the resorts of the south-west.

It is unfortunate that an inadequate piece of road should coincide with the point at which people get tired on their journey to the south-west. Their concentration is at its lowest, and, at that point, the road ceases to be a dual carriageway. It becomes a rather strange single carriageway plus, then recedes to a single carriageway over a rise where there is no visibility. That section of road clearly needs some attention, to make it safe.

All this was agreed years ago. We had a public inquiry. Uniquely, for road schemes of this kind, it was not seriously opposed by any particular group. Everyone agreed that the plans presented by the Highways Agency constituted the right way of dealing with an accident blackspot on a major trunk road. A public inquiry submitted proposals, and agreement was reached a long time ago, before the 1997 general election.

A moratorium was then imposed on road building of this kind. We were told that we would have to await the outcome of the multi-modal study. I do not know why: as I have said, not a capacity issue but a safety issue formed the basis of the multi-modal report. Anyway, we have waited and waited, and we now learn that this is somewhere in a queue of schemes for the south-west and, according to current plans, will almost certainly not be proceeded with until much more contentious issues further west are dealt with.

That cannot be acceptable to my constituents who, every day, run the risks involved in trying to use or cross the A303. It cannot be acceptable to those who want to use it to gain access to the south-west. Surely the safety issue can be detached from the capacity issues further down the road, and dealt with as a matter of priority. Surely it is possible to use plans that have already been agreed in order to make the road safe.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): The hon. Gentleman will know that the Marsh to Honiton section of the A303 goes to my constituency. It is not just a question of capacity; that single-carriageway stretch of road has a very bad safety record.

Mr. Heath: I hear what the hon. Lady says, but, as I have said, I am not qualified to talk about the road further west, and I do not want to enter into an argument with her or with any other Member about that.

I am simply saying that the scheme will stand or fall on its merits. It is solely to do with safety. There is no effective opposition to it, and the plans are ready to run; yet it has been held up by other considerations. I do not think that acceptable, and I ask the Minister to think about it. Perhaps he will pay attention to this stretch of road when he next travels to his constituency, or perhaps he will break his train journey to have a look at it. Sadly, breaking a journey on First Great Western is often quite easy nowadays.

Let me make a more important suggestion. Will the Minister ask his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson), to go and see what needs to be done? Perhaps he will then meet me, along with local people, so that we can discuss the matter.

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This is very simple. All that is needed is a ministerial fiat. I urge the Minister to treat the issue as a priority, before another life is lost on the road

8.13 pm

Mr. Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley): I invite all Members to visit Manchester over the next fortnight or so. If they do, they will find the streets awash with red, blue, green and yellow bunting and flags to celebrate the start of the 17th Commonwealth games on Thursday.

I am sorry that the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Virginia Bottomley) is not here, because I would have liked to pay tribute to her. What has made the event in Manchester possible is the support of Ministers in the last Government, including the right hon. Lady, the former right hon. Member for Henley—now Lord Heseltine—and the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key). We have also received support whenever we have asked for it from the Liberal Democrat party leadership, and from our own Ministers. Before I sound as though I am being too nice to the Liberal Democrats, let me add that the excellence of their leadership has not always been mirrored by the behaviour of one or two nasty Liberal Democrat councillors "on the ground", whose perspective has been non-existent and who are now eating their rather unpleasant words.

I hope that people will go to the games and will recognise the work that has gone into their organisation. I am thinking of work done by Charles Allen of Granada Television, chair of the organising committee; Frances Done, chief executive; Howard Bernstein, chief executive of the city council; and Councillor Richard Leese. They have made major contributions, as have the Commonwealth Games Council for England and many sponsors, as well as thousands of volunteers.

No doubt over the next fortnight those people will be lying awake worrying, or having nightmares about things going wrong—as of course they could. I am sure that everything possible has been done to prevent that, but we should bear in mind the fact that the event will involve 4,000 athletes and that hundreds of thousands of people will attend 17 events, one of which—the shooting event—will take place as far away as Bisley in the south-east. The potential for organisational difficulties is enormous, but I have every confidence in those who have organised the event.

Three outcomes can be identified now. First, there will be no white elephants. All the sporting facilities will have an after-use, which is generally funded in partnership with other organisations. For instance, the aquatic centre is in partnership with the universities, which provides an excellent use for it afterwards. I confess to finding it difficult that Manchester City—not my favourite team—will be able to use the stadium afterwards. One of the oddest features of my career is the fact that I spent some of it securing an excellent stadium for the team in Manchester that I do not support. In any event, there will be no white elephants. That was not the case in Kuala Lumpur, and has not been the case after many other international sporting events in a stadium holding 100,000 people—a stadium that is now sprouting weeds.

The jobs benefit and the economic spin-offs are already there. The Commonwealth games will create more than 6,000 jobs, and independent financial advisers have told

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us of more than £600,000 of direct investment in the area. That is certain, whatever else happens over the next fortnight to the biggest youth and sporting festival that this country has ever hosted.

Moreover, those who organise sport throughout the world will be in attendance. The perception of English, or British, sport will be changed by what people say. I am sure that they will be impressed when they see the facilities.

Finally, let me compare and contrast that with what has happened in the south-east and London. Money has been pledged, and things have not happened. Picketts Lock is just one example. It would have aspired to be a white elephant, but never quite made it. Another example is the world athletics championship. I believe that this country could have hosted it in Manchester or elsewhere, but we have damaged our standing with the international sports community by not getting the organisation right. The bid for the World cup, which I supported passionately, was not helped by the fact that we managed to support—shall we say—the less honest side of the FIFA organisation, continuing with the corrupt Havelange dynasty followed by Blatter. That was not a smart move in terms of our standing in Europe and the rest of the world. Finally, more money was spent turning Wembley into a derelict site than has been spent on producing an excellent stadium in Manchester for the Commonwealth games.

I make those comments not to have fun but to make a serious point. Some time ago—I have asked questions in the Chamber about it—the British Olympic Association, supported by the Government and much of the establishment, said that if Britain were to bid for the Olympic games again, they would have to be in London. London is a great world city with many facilities. However, that decision was not subject to a competition, unlike Manchester's bid for the Commonwealth games or different cities' bid for the Olympic games. In the light of the mistakes in relation to facilities in the south-east and what I am sure will be a success in Manchester, this country would have a stronger international bid for the Olympic games and would get more support around the country if there were a proper competition between the United Kingdom cities that wanted to host the Olympic games, be it Glasgow, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds or London. The issues could be fully aired in the light of the experience of the past four or five years. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take that issue up because competition in these issues strengthens our position in the international community. Often, assuming things will happen does not work.

I leave the Minister with one further thought, as the Government bring forward legislation to provide for direct elections to regional assemblies. What Manchester has done and what to a large extent London, Birmingham, Leeds and Glasgow do to project their image in competing to host events—whether it be the international city of culture, the Commonwealth games, the Olympic games or whatever—is very healthy. Had the north-west had a regional structure 10 years ago, I am not sure that it would have been as easy for Manchester to achieve investment of £250 million in sporting facilities—there has been a lot of private sector investment. It might have got stuck in a regional body where lowest common denominator politics predominated.

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I believe that people associate themselves seriously with cities, are happy to support competitions such as that for the international city of culture, and are less happy to associate themselves with the regions, most of which are named after a point on the compass and have no real economic, cultural or political community association.

I shall finish on a positive note by inviting you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and everyone else to come and enjoy the events in Manchester over the next fortnight, and to reflect on the fact that our cities and towns are often the public face of this country. They are its economic engine and powerhouse. We need to ensure that our political structures reflect that.

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