House of Commons
|Session 2008 - 09|
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General Committee Debates
Regional Grand Committee Debates
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Andrew Kennon, David Slater, Committee Clerks
attended the Committee
South West Regional Grand Committee
Thursday 3 September 2009(Exeter)
[Robert Key in the Chair]Economic Downturn
The Chairman: Welcome to Exeter for the first ever sitting of a Regional Grand Committee outside Westminster. We are grateful to Devon county council for its hospitality and for the use of its chamber. It is also a pleasure to be in the constituency of Exeter, courtesy, we should not forget, of Ben Bradshaw, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.
The first business before the Committee is oral questions to Jim Knight, the Minister for the South West, which will be followed by a debate on the Select Committee report. It may be convenient for the public if I explain that we will conduct our business as we would at Westminster. For example, members of the Committee will rise to catch the Chairmans eye in order to ask questions and to make speeches during the debate.
Oral Answers to QuestionsThe Minister for the South West was asked
Gypsies and Travellers
1. Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): What recent representations the Government office for the south-west has received from local authorities on the numbers of Gypsies and Travellers resident on (a) official sites, (b) privately-owned sites without planning permission and (c) illegal sites; and if he will make a statement. 
The Minister for the South West (Jim Knight): With your permission, Mr. Key, may I start by saying how pleased I am, as Minister for the South West, that ours is the first region to take Parliament out of Westminster and closer to the electors to whom we are accountable? This is also probably the first time that we have met in a slightly less combative crescent-shaped chamber; it will be interesting to see whether that helps us to achieve greater consensus.
The Government office for the south-west received 13 representations from local authorities on the provision of Gypsy and Traveller accommodation in the Secretary of States proposed changes to the regional spatial strategy, published in July 2008.
Mr. Gray: Planning inspectors are forced into favouring what would otherwise be illegal Gypsy and Traveller encampments because of the presumption that there is
Jim Knight: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman appreciates that it is important that legal provision is made for Gypsies and Travellers; otherwise there would be illegal sites without there having been a process to find the most appropriate place. It is important to put on record that there is no evidence that Gypsies and Travellers are treated differently from anybody else under the planning laws. The RSS has gone through a difficult phase following the challenge in the east of England. A later question has been tabled on the RSS, but I will say now what I was going to say then: it is inappropriate for me to comment on the detail, but the process is sound.
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): May I support my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire? We have a lot of Travellers in my constituency of Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire, some of whom behave perfectly well and some of whom do not. There is a major problem. I have been participating in the police service parliamentary scheme during the recess. The service has told me that it does not have the powers to do anything about the situation, and county and local councils also seem to be having great difficulties with it. Problems arise when Travellers move to a sitewhether they have a right to be there or notand then start to develop it. They may have to submit a planning application, but by the time that is turned down, they will have done an awful lot of damage to the site. I therefore support my hon. Friendthis is a very big problem, particularly in the county that I represent.
Jim Knight: I do not dispute that there is a significant problem that we have to resolve. It is worth pointing out that, nationally, the amount of space taken up by illegal sites occupies no more than around 1 square mile that would have to be distributed across the country in legal sites. That is why the Government have brought forward funding. Authorities across the region have applied for £4.5 million of funding to develop legal sites so that we can create a more controlled environment that has gone through a proper accountable planning process, and achieve a much more coherent strategy for dealing with Gypsies and Travellers.
2. Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay) (LD): What discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on levels of household incomes in Devon and Cornwall; and if he will make a statement. 
Jim Knight: South-west England, and the peninsular in particular, is a low-earnings, high-cost place to live compared with other English regions. Average earnings
Mr. Sanders: I thank the Minister for that answer, but one of the things that local authorities and different community partnerships cannot do is control the cost of utility charges, particularly water and sewerage charges. Those charges are higher in south-west England than in any other part of the UK. Will the Minister commit to seeking a solution to that? We have been waiting more than 12 years for something concrete that helps people to meet the high cost of water and sewerage charges.
Jim Knight: I am well aware of the problem of the high cost of water and sewerage charges in the area covered by South West Water. The situation is slightly different in the parts of the region not covered by that water authority, as those areas do not have quite the same extent of liability in respect of coastal areas and bathing water quality. The subject is regularly raised by my parliamentary assistant, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton. She will certainly make sure that I take a very close interest in what we can do to help resolve the problem.
Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): I thank the Minister for that response. May I urge him to look at the work that is being done in response to the interim report on the Walker review of charging and metering for water and sewerage services? I urge him to receive a copy of the work done by the all-party group, which I chair, and of which the hon. Member for St. Ives is a member.
Jim Knight: I look forward to looking at the work of the Walker review and that of the all-party group. I am very happy to meet with members of the all-party group to discuss its work and report and to determine what action I can reasonably take forward with the water company and its regulator.
Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): The Walker review has set out a number of proposals and alternatives. One proposal recognises, for the first time, the need to have an equalisation scheme for the cost of infrastructure charges across the UK. That would have to be retrospective to have any effect; otherwise the people in the South West Water area would just end up picking up the infrastructure charges for the rest of the country. Does the Minister believe that such a scheme could be retrospective?
Jim Knight: For me to give a view on that here and now would be to get into dangerous territory. Tempting as it might be, there are always difficulties regarding retrospection, with which the hon. Gentleman and other
3. Mr. Geoffrey Cox (Torridge and West Devon) (Con): What recent representations the Government office for the south-west has received from its regional partners on levels of per capita funding for schools in the south-west. 
Jim Knight: I can confirm to the hon. and learned Gentleman that there have been no recent representations to the Government office for the south-west from its regional partners on levels of per capita funding for schools in the south-west. However, I can say from personal experience that they are not backward in making direct representations to the relevant Minister in the Department for Children, Schools and Families.
Mr. Cox: A Devon schoolchild receives £410 less in schools funding than the national average. Does the Minister really think that that is fair? Given the huge extra costs of providing education across a large rural county such as Devon, can he justify that? What, after 12 years, is his Government going to do to address the iniquity?
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