HC Deb 16 November 2000 vol 356 cc1084-104 1.20 pm
The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. John Prescott)

The Government have today published a White Paper on the future of our towns and cities, which is accompanied by two documents, "The State of the English Cities" and "Living in Urban England: Attitudes and Aspirations". These set out the supporting analysis, copies of which have been placed in the Library. As we have said on several occasions, we will publish our rural White Paper later this month with the agreement of the business managers and yourself, Mr. Speaker. I always try to assist the House and the Opposition in giving what information I can, and I assume that, on this occasion, information might have been useful to help with the list of questions that was distributed by the Opposition Whip just before their spokesman came into the Chamber. We shall note with interest whether we get different questions at different times.

A common message runs through those documents, which are about people, places and prosperity. We want to create sustainable communities in which everyone, no matter where they live, can enjoy a good quality of life in communities in which economic prosperity and social justice go hand in hand. I am sure that the House will agree that we have some of the best towns and cities in the world. We have famous historical and cultural centres, dynamic commercial areas, pleasant suburbs and seats of learning that command respect the world over and of which we are justly proud.

The last urban White Paper was produced by the last Labour Government more than two decades ago and focused narrowly on inner-city areas. We now understand the need for a much broader approach that takes in all urban areas. Much has happened since that urban White Paper was published. Cities are powerful engines of growth, but in the early 1980s many of them were hit hard by economic changes. The approach then regarded economic behaviour as detached from its social context, and in the years that followed many areas suffered from neglect, poor management, inadequate public services, lack of investment and a culture of short-termism.

Our aim is to reverse that legacy of decline and bring about a lasting urban renaissance. There are signs of hope, as our attitudes and aspirations survey shows: 85 per cent. of people are satisfied with the areas where they live, the rate at which people are leaving our cities is slowing down and people are moving back into our city centres. We still face big challenges. People and jobs have been leaving our great cities, and people are increasingly living in smaller households or alone, with the result that many more households will need to be accommodated over the next 25 years, as the House has discussed.

Some neighbourhoods suffer from a poor quality of life and a lack of opportunity. Economic performance in some areas is weak, with a knock-on effect on the surrounding region. Over the past 20 years, out-of-town shopping centres have taken the heart out of some of our urban areas; 30,000 hectares of our green belt have been built over; and playing fields have been sold off for short-term profit without regard for the health of the communities they served.

On coming to office, we took immediate action to alleviate the worst problems and began laying the foundations for the long-term strategy that we are now bringing together in the White Paper. We merged the Department of Environment and the Department of Transport to encourage a more joined-up approach to solving problems. We have got hundreds of thousands of young people back into work with the new deal—[Interruption.] It is all very well the Opposition mumbling, but we have provided an extra £5 billion to tackle the £19 billion housing repair backlog that we inherited.

We produced the integrated transport White Paper and the £180 billion 10-year plan to rectify decades of under-investment in our transport infrastructure under the previous Administration. We began tackling problems in our most deprived communities through the £800 million new deal for communities and the social exclusion unit. We have committed £350 million over three years to regenerate the coalfield communities that were decimated by the previous Government's policies.

Modernising local government has been a priority. We have legislated to make councils more efficient and more accountable to local people. We established the regional development agencies to drive forward economic growth and regeneration in the regions—[Interruption]—and they are working. Many years ago, the Opposition said that they would abolish the regional development agencies for Scotland and Wales. They failed to do so. Although it was a manifesto promise, they did not carry it out. Why would they keep regional development agencies for Scotland and Wales and not give them to the English regions? We shall be asking them that at the next election.

We are modernising the planning system and have set a new target of building 60 per cent. of new housing on developed land. We are on target for achieving that. The quality of construction is improving, following John Egan's report, "Rethinking Construction". In 1998 we set up the urban taskforce under Lord Rogers to look at the causes of decline in our urban areas and recommend practical ways of bringing people back into our towns and cities. I would like to express my personal appreciation to Lord Rogers and his team for the excellent report on which much of the White Paper is based.

The White Paper builds on that groundwork. It sets out a long-term strategy that will bring lasting benefits to all who live in our towns and cities—a strategy which recognises, in Lord Rogers' words, that people make cities, but cities make citizens.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

What does that mean?

Mr. Prescott

Think about it. Evidently, the Opposition have a limited knowledge of these concepts.

There are four key components to our strategy: improving quality of life through partnership with local people; developing sustainable communities in attractive, well-kept towns and cities; achieving economic growth and shared prosperity in all urban areas, and providing good-quality services.

The first is improving quality of life. In the White Paper, we commit ourselves to working in partnership with all concerned to make all areas places for people. It is not just a matter of bricks and mortar. People need jobs, a decent home, good public services and an attractive and safe environment. To be successful, plans need to be shaped by local people for local people.

A clear message from regeneration projects over the past 20 years is that local people must be fully engaged from the outset. All too often, that has not happened—it certainly did not under the previous Administration.

Local authorities have a central role. A good council is one that listens to, leads and builds up local communities. We want councils to work through local strategic partnerships and to involve the community, service providers, business and voluntary organisations in producing community strategies. They should set out an action plan to improve their town or city as outlined in the White Paper.

Secondly, we want to develop sustainable communities living in attractive, well-kept towns and cities, which use space and buildings well and which are cleaner and less congested. Last week, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced a £1 billion tax incentive package to promote urban renaissance. As a result, more investment will be attracted to disadvantaged areas by the removal of stamp duty from all property transactions in those areas. A block of flats costing £250,000 could qualify for an extra incentive of £6,000.

The re-use of brownfield land will be encouraged through the provision of accelerated tax credits for cleaning up contaminated land. A company spending £1 million on cleaning up contaminated land could receive £300,000 without having to wait until the property is sold.

More homes will be provided as a result of the 100 per cent. capital allowances for creating flats over shops and VAT reforms to encourage the conversion of properties for residential use. For example, someone spending £20,000 on a conversion could receive an incentive of £2,500. It is an important consideration in the development of single-person households.

The new urban regeneration companies that we set up last year are beginning the process of transforming parts of Liverpool, east Manchester and Sheffield. We plan 12 more to tackle the hardest hit local areas in every region. One can often tell the health of an area by the quality of its public realm, and in particular its parks, play areas and open spaces. They are indeed, as they are often described, the lungs of our towns and cities. We have set up a comprehensive programme, including demonstration projects and an extended green flag award scheme—like the blue flag scheme for beaches—to encourage and recognise excellence.

Planning has a fundamental role to play. I can announce today that, in response to Lord Rogers's report, we will conduct a fundamental review of planning policy guidance note 1, "General Policy and Principles", to put the urban renaissance at the heart of the planning system. Simplifying compulsory purchase will make it quicker and easier to unlock land and fairer to everyone involved. There will be new guidance and, ultimately, legislation.

There is a shortage of people with the necessary range of skills to drive forward the urban renaissance. We are therefore setting up regional centres of excellence to improve skills and training in each region. The first two will be in the north-west and in London. In addition, we will start a programme of international secondments so that we can learn from the best in the world.

Our town centres will be stronger. We will protect them from new out-of-town schemes. We will improve them through the town improvement schemes, with local funding, as proposed in the local government finance Green Paper. The millennium communities at Greenwich and Allerton Bywater have shown what good design can achieve. The Greenwich millennium village will be an attractive, mixed tenure development, with homes within walking distance of shops, employment and services. It will have good open spaces and, above all, it will be environmentally sustainable, using 80 per cent. less energy and 30 per cent. less water than a similar conventional development. We will build five more millennium communities in different parts of the country.

Our new English cities fund is designed to encourage the maximum growth in private investment in priority areas, which is vital if we are to secure the widespread regeneration that we seek. The fund will bring up to £250 million into new mixed use projects.

The third component of our strategy is creating the conditions for economic growth and shared prosperity in all our towns and cities. We want to see the generation of more wealth and social justice side by side. Growing disparities and exclusion from our increasing national prosperity are simply unacceptable, and have dominated the past 10 years.

If towns and cities are to be successful economically, they need effective support and a clear regional lead. We have therefore given the regional development agencies more money and much more freedom to use those funds to best effect for the people of their region.

Access to investment capital is also vital to economic growth. That is why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced last week that we will consult on a new community investment tax credit to encourage private enterprise in under-invested communities. We will also work closely with the venture capital industry to set up the first community development venture fund to support new businesses in disadvantaged areas.

Although under this Government there are 1 million more people in jobs, there is a mismatch between the jobs that are available and the skills of those seeking work. We need to ensure that local people have the skills that businesses are seeking. We are therefore setting up the new Learning and Skills Council announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, with a budget of £5.5 billion a year. That is an increase of £600 million. It will bring together funding for education and training to ensure a coherent approach that benefits both learners and employers. In this way, we hope to encourage lifelong learning and reduce the skills mismatch that exists in too many areas of our cities and towns.

Any efficient, modern city requires a good transport system. That is why the 10-year plan for transport emphasises improving bus services and commuter railways, and why it will fund up to 25 new light rail lines. There is a considerable amount of money for the local transport plans that we are to announce in December.

The fourth component of our strategy is good-quality services. By 2003–04 there will be £139 billion a year for key services: health, education, transport, housing and criminal justice, as well as culture, leisure and sport. That is £33 billion more than now. It amounts to an average real increase of nearly 7 per cent. a year for the next three years, which is a substantial increase however it is measured.

The extra money will be backed by tough targets to ensure that we get substantial improvements, with the greatest change in the most deprived areas. We have set ourselves the target of making sure that all social housing is of a decent standard within 10 years, and we are providing the resources needed to make that possible.

Providing homes for key workers is essential if we are to have good-quality services in our major conurbations. We have allocated £250 million over the next three years to help key workers to buy homes. We will shortly set out the details, following on from the housing Green Paper.

We are raising educational standards by expanding the excellence in cities and sure start programmes, by extending free education for three-year-olds and by attracting more people into higher education through the excellence challenge. Only today, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment announced that performance in the first excellence in cities areas has improved much faster than anywhere else.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health made clear earlier this week, people's health should not depend on where they live. We are improving health services and reducing inequalities through a major expansion of investment in the health service. We have set tough targets for reducing crime and are backing that with an enhanced crime reduction programme, additional funding for the police and a 10-year drugs strategy.

We recognise that the most deprived areas need extra help and we are determined to narrow the gap between them and the rest of the country. That is why we have set up a neighbourhood renewal fund of £800 million and will shortly be setting our action plan for neighbourhood renewal.

There have been many attempts to change our towns and cities. Too often they have been partial and limited, looking at buildings or the economy in isolation and forgetting the people who live there. This White Paper is broad in its scope and long term in its perspective. We deal with towns and cities struggling to recover from decline as well as those where the pressure of growth needs to be carefully managed. We have set out the way to achieve this and provided the money to back it up.

However, no Government can deliver on their own. We will lead and enable regional and local partners to transform our towns and cities. We will get decisions taken at the right level and transfer real power from Whitehall to Whitechapel. Lord Rogers called for an urban policy board to track progress in implementing our proposals. We will put urban issues at the heart of Government by setting up a new Cabinet Committee. That Committee will be advised by a new group bringing together community, academic, professional, private and business interests.

The Government will be accountable. The Cabinet Committee will prepare for an urban summit in 2002 that will take stock of progress. We will also publish a new "State of the Cities" report in 2005.

I recently visited a deprived pre-war estate in my constituency. Most constituencies contain estates like it. There was graffiti, litter, empty houses and a general air of decay, but a very strong sense of community too. I met a woman who had lived there all her life. She said, "I love living here, but I don't want to go on living like this, John." We must not fail people like her, her family or the community.

This White Paper sets out our long-term strategy. We cannot deliver on our own, so I am calling on local authorities, business planners and developers, voluntary and community groups and, above all, local people to work together to bring about an urban renaissance.

In short, this White Paper is about giving people more say over shaping their future, making sure that people can live in attractive and well-kept towns and cities, creating and sharing prosperity, and ensuring that we have places with good-quality services which meet people's needs.

I commend the White Paper to the House.

Mr. Archie Norman (Tunbridge Wells)

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for that statement, and for the advance copies of it that he supplied. I welcome him back to the Chamber after the recent important debates on the tube, the Transport Bill and other matters. Sometimes I think that we see him only when there is a glossy brochure to produce or a disaster to announce.

Mr. Phil Hope (Corby)

Where were you?

Mr. Norman

I was here in the Chamber on Monday, as Labour Members well know.

The subject of the statement is a matter of commitment and passion that is shared by all parties. The failure of our inner cities over the past three decades or more has been the engine of poverty, deprivation and social failure. Inner cities account for 54 per cent. of crime in the country, and the figure is rising. They are the source of lost opportunity and are the root cause of children left behind by the prosperity enjoyed by the rest of the country.

I should like to join the Deputy Prime Minister in paying tribute to Lord Rogers, who has produced a formidable report on the subject. He has played a valiant role in the past year, lobbying and harassing the Government into producing the statement that we have heard today.

At last, three and a half years into a Labour Government, we have a White Paper. At first glance, we welcome the White Paper and many of its proposals. However, people will judge it not by its grandiose words, but by whether it accepts the hard recommendations made by Lord Rogers and addresses the fundamental criticisms that have been made of Government policy in the past.

The Financial Times said today that the Government were nervous about the reception of their White Paper. Is that surprising when, according to our first-cut tally of the White Paper, of the 105 recommendations made by the Rogers report only 14 have been met in full? Some 34 have been fudged or delayed and 57 are either not addressed in the White Paper or have been rejected outright. Many people living in our cities will think that a very disappointing tally—too little, too late. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The Deputy Prime Minister had a proper hearing, and so should the Opposition spokesman.

Mr. Norman

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

I ask the Deputy Prime Minister to address four fundamental points. First, the Government have been criticised in the past for their failure to co-ordinate the various initiatives on urban regeneration. The Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs said: There is a lack of co-ordination between local, regional and national Government…

The Committee also said that the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions do not appear to have the same views about the role of the cities. According to yesterday's reports in The Times, neither do they have the same views on the north/south divide. The Deputy Prime Minister does not think that it exists, but the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry thinks that it is widening. The Government's response has been to set up a Committee. Does the Deputy Prime Minister seriously think that that will be enough? Will the DTI and DETR regeneration budgets be merged under that Committee? Will the right hon. Gentleman chair that Cabinet Committee, or will it be left to the Minister for the dome? Will it meet regularly, or will it be like the Rural Affairs Committee, which has met only once this year?

The Government have been criticised for dissipating resources and applying Elastoplast solutions—for doing the easy things but neglecting the tough actions. What has happened to the primary legislation that Lord Rogers called for to strengthen the powers of regeneration companies? What has happened to the much vaunted urban priority areas which would have enabled more far-reaching and rapid delivery of change? Has the Deputy Prime Minister rejected these recommendations, which were fundamental to the Rogers report, or has he just been thwarted by the Treasury?

In the past three years, the Deputy Prime Minister has cut the amount of money spent on regeneration. Will he now clarify what—if anything—in today's announcement represents new money or new tax incentives? Or does it consist entirely of reheated announcements from the past? Has he been comprehensively pre-empted by the pre-Budget announcement?

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned a £1 billion tax package, already mentioned by the Chancellor last week. Is that not to be spread over five years, with only £163 million of it for next year?

More specifically, can the right hon. Gentleman tell us definitively his attitude to the zero VAT rating on new houses built on green fields? Has he rejected Lord Rogers' recommendation of levelling the playing field between urban regeneration and greenfield development, because the statement appears to be silent on that subject?

Does the Deputy Prime Minister recognise the growing concern, expressed by Lord Rogers, the Rowntree Foundation and many others, about the continuing exodus from our cities and about his commitment to accelerate that exodus by building 900,000 unwanted new homes in the south-east and 500,000 in the south-west? Does he not recognise that that is a plan that flies in the face of all that the statement is designed to achieve? It will accelerate the migration of the better-off and able from the inner cities to the countryside, and from the north to the south.

Finally, does the Deputy Prime Minister recognise that summits in 2002 and Cabinet Committees are all very well, but in six months' time when he retires from office he will be judged not by his promises but by his record? By the time he retires, the hard facts will be that he will have spent less on regeneration in our inner cities than did the previous Conservative Government; and there will be 3,000 more homeless people than he inherited, 51 per cent. more people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, 3,000 more empty council houses, and rising crime in almost every major city. Of all the new jobs that the Government claim to have created, only 10 per cent. will be in the inner cities. According to the Government's statistics, 300,000 more people are living below the poverty line and the exodus from our cities has accelerated, not declined—all that at a time of unprecedented prosperity.

Is not the real record one of rising poverty, a widening north/south divide and the neglect of our inner cities? Is not the real truth that this is a Government who have flunked the big decisions and masqueraded as the party of the inner cities, but have betrayed their own heartlands?

Mr. Prescott

That was a bantam weight contribution by the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman). As for appearances in the House, I have an interesting note from the Library: I have appeared at oral questions four or five times more often than the hon. Gentleman since he has been on the Conservative Front Bench, and I have been here more—or at least an equal amount of time—for statements. So I am before the House more often than the hon. Gentleman. I have embarked on a secret strategy to improve the relationship between us, however: absence makes the heart grow fonder.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's endorsement of the report and congratulations to Lord Rogers and his urban team, who have produced an important piece of work. I also welcome the noble Lord's support for the report, which he made clear on the "Today" programme, and for the new financial measures announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. It was inevitable that I should have to wait for the Chancellor's announcement before the measures could be included in the White Paper—that is normal practice. The fact that I repeated the announcement does not make the measures irrelevant, as they are part of the package.

The big decision is that £180 billion will be going into the transport industry. We are often asked in the House, "Where are the resources?" I have catalogued all the billions of pounds that will be available to improve investment in the social structure in our cities and towns, which the previous Administration failed to provide. Admittedly, the hon. Gentleman was not responsible for the decisions of the previous Administration, but he was certainly a member of the Conservative party at the time, so I am surprised to hear any complaint from him. The Conservatives doubled homelessness, put an awful lot of people out of their homes because of negative equity, and at the same time held back £5 billion from the sale of council houses, refusing to invest it in new housing. We have released resources that the previous Administration deliberately kept in accounts while the quality of homes in our inner cities declined year on year—they simply would not put the money back in to improve houses. That was one of our first decisions. Our housing programme of the past three years compares favourably with any record of the previous Administration.

As to how many of Lord Rogers' recommendations have been accepted, a number have been implemented in part or fully and we disagreed with only six—I mentioned one, which was the urban policy board. I shall take the evidence of Lord Rogers himself; on the "Today" programme, he made it clear that the White Paper is a powerful tool for the regeneration of our cities—

Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham)

He has not seen it.

Mr. Prescott

No, he has not seen the White Paper—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) is not allowed to do that.

Mr. Prescott

I have catalogued all the matters covered by statements made in the House because we need a comprehensive approach. The White Paper aims to find a framework. Lord Rogers knows about the transport and housing plans; he knows what we intend to do about brownfield sites. Those matters are part and parcel of our approach to the regeneration of our cities, so it is right for him to say—he is also well aware of what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor said—that the White Paper is a powerful tool for the development and regeneration of our cities.

As for differences between the DETR and the DTI in the development of our policies, clearly there are none. Press reports are not necessarily to be taken as they are presented. I have read the speech given by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. It makes no statement whatever about differences between the north and south. My right hon. Friend referred to the economic differences in our cities; after 18 years under the previous Conservative Administration, that is hardly surprising. We are united. The White Paper is about uniting Departments to ensure that our towns and cities meet the requirements and make improvements.

As for the Tory record on regeneration, during their last year in office, the Tory Government cut back spending on regeneration to £1.3 billion. This year, we are spending £1.5 billion; we are increasing that by 15 per cent. a year for the next three years. The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells wants to make a comparison, but he does not take into account the amount that we put into new deal programmes and the extra resources allocated for the inner cities. Those amounts need to be added in order to make comparisons about regeneration. When the hon. Gentleman makes that comparison, he will find that the resources that we are giving our towns and cities are substantially higher.

The White Paper brings together thinking across Government; it provides a framework for our towns and cities, and is what we intend to do to provide better opportunities.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the White Paper. Will he pay tribute from the Dispatch Box to all those—local authorities, private companies and individuals—who have already demonstrated in many of our big cities such as Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol that urban regeneration can be made a reality, that we can bring people back to the cities and that that movement has already started? Will he tell us, in setting out the signposts for achieving the aims of the document, how soon we shall receive the new planning guidance that he mentioned?

Mr. Prescott

I welcome my hon. Friend's remarks, especially as he is the Chairman of the Environment Sub-Committee. I appreciate the help that the Committee has given us on this matter, particularly the recommendations in its reports; they were most useful when we were considering the White Paper.

I support his comments on urban regeneration; it is an important development. In fairness to the Opposition, some of the urban regeneration schemes started by the previous Administration have been of much benefit to our cities—but the programme is not limited to that. There are distinctive differences between us, but the regeneration programmes have been of considerable benefit; we want to build on the successes and deal with the weaknesses. The White Paper addresses that.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

Like the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman), I congratulate Lord Rogers. I welcome many of the initiatives in the White Paper, including, for example, improved support for home zones and measures to help walkers and cyclists.

However, my overall impression of the White Paper is that it has sound and fury but signifies not a lot. There seem to be many missed opportunities. For example, why is there no proposal for a greenfield development tax to boost developments on brownfield sites? Help with contaminated land is welcome, but does not go far enough.

Why is there no proposal to reduce VAT on work to bring back into use the scandalously large number—750,000—of empty homes? Why are there no real measures to simplify the plethora of regeneration schemes and budgets—so bewildering that much of the budgeted money does not even get spent?

Finally, I hope that the Deputy Prime Minister will at least agree that, without the full involvement of local people in urban renaissance, the White Paper will simply be a waste of paper.

Mr. Prescott

I am sorry, I did not hear the last part—I was too busy. Did I hear someone say waste of space? I heard the other soundbite, which was that the White Paper gave the overall impression of sound and fury and did not signify a lot; I always thought that that was a description of the Liberal party. There seems to be common accord between the two Front Benches on that point.

I believe that the VAT proposals are a step in the right direction, and that they are the direction in which most people want us to go. The Conservative spokesman also asked why we were not introducing VAT on greenfield sites. The Chancellor has made it clear, and we have made it clear, that these matters are under active consideration. We started with stamp duty. We are now into zero VAT and 5 per cent. VAT. These are justified incentives for people to begin to develop empty properties—and properties of the type in which many single-person households might wish to live. I think that we are taking a step in the right direction. I recognise that Lord Rogers wanted more, and I recognise what the Liberal spokesman is saying, but the direction is right, the strategy is right and it is part of our development.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley)

I welcome all aspects of my right hon. Friend's excellent statement. I especially welcome his repeated commitment to ensure that 60 per cent. of new housing is built on developed land. Will it now be possible for local authorities radically to change existing UDPs? For example, could Bradford council—now Conservative controlled—if it so wished, restore the great swathe of land near Silsden in my constituency to green belt, instead of pushing for hundreds of houses on that site?

Mr. Prescott

I am grateful for that expression of support. We are committed to ensuring that 60 per cent. of new housing is built on brownfield land. We are now in the range of about 53 per cent., getting on for 54 per cent., and moving in the right direction. In addition, the planning changes that we have made will help us to move in the same direction. When I made the new announcement on PPG1, I had that very much in mind.

am never sure what figure the Opposition propose for new housing built on brownfield land. It was 50 per cent. at one stage, and they only achieved an average 45 per cent. over their time in government. Then it went from 60 per cent. to 70 per cent., and down to two thirds—and I am still not quite sure what it is.

Our policy is absolutely clear. We have said that our figure is 60 per cent. We are on target for it. We are changing the planning regulations to achieve that. That can play a major part in the south as well as the north, by recognising the density of buildings and houses per hectare; we are going to achieve that.

The UDPs can be, and are being, reviewed—PPG3, which my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) mentioned, provides one way in which we are asking local authorities to review those plans.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

Some of the comments that the Deputy Prime Minister made at the opening of his statement are particularly welcome, drawing attention to the importance of playing fields, the importance of encouraging homes in cities and towns rather than outside them—in the countryside in particular—and the importance of keeping the green belt intact.

Trafford borough council is reviewing its unitary development plan and is contemplating development in the green belt and the building of 2,400 houses on farm land outside the Greater Manchester conurbation. It is also contemplating destroying playing fields in Bowdon in my constituency. While councils are reviewing their unitary development plans, as they are currently, will the Deputy Prime Minister inform them of the Government's view that that type of development in green spaces outside towns and cities should be stopped, that the green belt should be protected and that playing fields should not be built on?

Mr. Prescott

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comments about the importance of play areas or green spaces—or public realms, as they are often called. They are important, and we should all—local authorities and national Government—give great importance to them. I am bound to say that the previous Administration's record is none too good. They got rid of 5,000 play spaces. Since we have restricted such development, we have received 856 applications to build on playing fields, and only six have been implemented against the agreement of Sport England. So we have considerably reduced such development and we have retained the playing fields and green spaces that the hon. Gentleman wants.

We have recommended in PPG3 that unitary development plans make it clear that building on such greenfield sites is not acceptable. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we make recommendations, and if a case comes to me for a planning decision, I have to take such advice into account.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

I welcome the Deputy Prime Minister's statement, but will he help the House by providing a simple definition of a town, as opposed to a city? Will he pay regard to the evidence that will appear in the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee's response to the White Paper following a visit by its members to Thirsk and Boroughbridge? When will PPG25 be adopted and come into effect?

The White Paper refers to the learning and skills councils, so will the Deputy Prime Minister tell us who will be responsible for implementing the Investors in People programme locally?

I very much welcome the target for reducing accidents on our roads. Will the right hon. Gentleman increase the number of bypasses that will be built?

Mr. Prescott

One of the advantages of the list of questions that is distributed to Conservative Members is that it gives them the opportunity to repeat many questions—but I am sure that I will be in trouble with you, Mr. Speaker, if I give crib answers to crib questions. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady knows exactly what I mean.

As for the hon. Lady's first question, a city is a town that has been incorporated. There will be an announcement on that subject shortly, as many towns have applied to become cities. York is already a city, and, in my area, Hull is a city. There is a serious distinction between cities and towns and we are dealing with the definition. The rural White Paper will contain a definition of market towns, and we shall say something about that when it is eventually published.

We have provided for an increased number of bypasses. It is interesting that when I announced £180 billion for transport programmes, many Tory Members queued up to tell me about the need for bypasses. However, as they want cuts in public expenditure, I thought that they might want to forgo the building of bypasses in their areas. That would certainly happen if the £16 billion of cuts in the Conservative party's public expenditure programme were ever implemented.

PPG25 deals with flood plains, which are a matter of serious consideration. The hon. Lady will know that the previous Administration had a code of practice that did not mean a great deal. Many houses were planned on flood plains, and those plans were endorsed by both central and local government. We thought that that was wrong, and after the floods in 1998, I ordered a review.

We had hoped to publish PPG25 in December, but the House will accept that I want to learn from some of the problems that have occurred recently, and to take them into account. That should not delay things a great deal, so I hope that PPG25 will be published either at the end of this year or at the beginning of next year.

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)

Did my right hon. Friend hear what I heard a few minutes ago when the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) talked about a period of unprecedented prosperity? Would my right hon. Friend be gracious and thank the hon. Gentleman for his sophisticated analysis of what has happened in the past three years? Perhaps my right hon. Friend can also persuade him to use what influence he has to reopen the Asda store in Darlaston, which was closed in the week of the general election. That was a malevolent decision.

Many people will welcome my right hon. Friend's announcement. Will he kindly arrange for a courier to be sent to Bovis forthwith with a copy of the report and all the planning guidance, and ask it not to build 700 homes on a greenbelt site in my constituency? Perhaps he will arrange to look in his pigeonhole, where a letter may arrive from me asking for that application to be called in by his Department when it is submitted.

Mr. Prescott

I thank my hon. Friend for his welcome words, which were no doubt addressed to the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman), who was simply recognising the fact, which everyone else in the country knows, that in the past three years we have had unprecedented prosperity and economic growth. I am sure that we will have a chance to argue that in the coming months.

I cannot comment on Asda; that is a matter for the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells. I assume that he no longer has anything to do with Asda—or, indeed, Railtrack—but no doubt he can bring considerable experience of those companies to his present job.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the new Walsall art gallery, which is a good-quality and well-designed building in the public realm.

As for whether I should send a copy of the report to Bovis, a copy will be sent to anyone who wishes to have one and to make a contribution. As for building 700 homes in the green belt, my hon. Friend knows that I have a planning function and role, and it would be more than my life is worth to comment on that now.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

My right hon. Friend set a target for all social housing to be brought up to a decent standard within 10 years. That is excellent, but what about the private sector? One in five houses in east Lancashire is deemed to be unfit for living in, and 99 per cent. of those are in the private sector. More of our housing stock was built before 1919 than in any other area, and that housing is in a dreadful, deplorable condition. Is any special help being targeted on east Lancashire, because its unique housing problems can be addressed only with additional central Government cash?

Mr. Prescott

I am aware—I have just received advice to confirm this—of the difficulties in my hon. Friend's constituency, and the rest of east Lancashire, with regard to home renewal programmes. The housing finance Green Paper attempted to introduce more flexible financial arrangements, which we hope will offer an opportunity for action. Of course, the taxation arrangements announced by the Chancellor will help with some private accommodation, but not necessarily in east Lancashire. I shall consider the matter and, if there is anything to add, write to my hon. Friend.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

The Deputy Prime Minister will know that there has been great concern about the length of time between the publication of the urban taskforce report by Lord Rogers and the White Paper. Some of us will look carefully at how the White Paper responds to the report. In view of the importance of regeneration, do the Government intend to appoint a sole Minister to oversee regeneration in its entirety, and if necessary to take decisions when there are—albeit understandable—differences between one Department and another?

Mr. Prescott

It is a bit rich for the Opposition to ask why it has taken so long to produce the report by Lord Rogers and the urban development taskforce. During the past 20 years, when many of our cities were in considerable decline, there was no report, no statement and no commissioning of anyone to do anything. I think that the hon. Gentleman was a Whip in the Conservative Government, and perhaps that meant being quiet. I accept that he might not have been able to say much from the Back Benches, but he could have said something to the Government. That would have added some credit to his criticism.

Nevertheless, we established Lord Rogers' taskforce in 1998 and he produced an excellent report. We have responded to that and to the Select Committee on such matters. We have made a comprehensive statement on urban regeneration in the next decade or so. When the rural White Paper is published, another statement will be made. The previous Government made no statement on either of those issues.

Mr. George Mudie (Leeds, East)

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for the compliments that the White Paper pays to Leeds, and congratulate him on the pledge to improve all social housing within 10 years, and on the provision of resources to carry out that pledge. However, may I draw his attention to the fear prevalent among local government colleagues, that that pledge is aimed only at local authorities that get rid of their stock? Will he assure our local government colleagues that it applies to all local government, regardless of the ownership of the housing stock?

Mr. Prescott

I understand my hon. Friend's point about social housing. We have given a commitment that will apply for 10 years. The specific circumstances to which he refers relate to local authorities and conditions concerning the transfer of properties. I made it clear in a previous statement that arm's-length companies could be established so that local authorities could retain ownership and have access to private capital. That means public-private partnerships, which I have been advocating in other less controversial areas.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

May I remind the Deputy Prime Minister that, contrary to the answer he gave my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir S. Chapman), he paid tribute earlier to some of the initiatives that were launched by the Conservative Government, in which I had a modest involvement, nearly 20 years ago? As my hon. Friend said, the need for urban policy initiatives should be supported by right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House.

I was impressed both by the quality of Lord Rogers' report and the speed with which he produced it. I believe that I am right in saying that it has taken the Government considerably longer to respond with a White Paper than it took Lord Rogers to produce his recommendations. I am concerned that the right hon. Gentleman's statement seems to include many announcements that various matters will be reviewed. That does not reflect the urgency that some might think is needed.

The right hon. Gentleman talks continually of towns and cities. I welcome that, but one change has taken place since I had some responsibilities for these matters. Many of the problems of major cities now also face market towns and other towns throughout the country, and they, too, need attention.

Mr. Prescott

I think that I am right to say, as the right hon. Gentleman has said, that I wanted to give credit to the regeneration projects that were implemented in a number of cities, even when the previous Administration were in power. I have said that those were improving city centres. The right hon. Gentleman was much involved in that policy. My disagreement with him was that much of the previous Government's policy related to economic circumstances and did not take account of social investment. I am trying to say in the White Paper that there is a need to do more than focus on economic circumstances. A study that we put in the Library makes the point that what characterised the 1960s and 1970s, and went on into the 1980s, was the idea that we should deal only with the economic problems. However, the investment that we put into education, housing and communities is connected. In many instances, cities were denied the possibility of jobs. The regeneration process was good, but they did not benefit from it.

We are taking the arguments forward from the Labour party's inner-city policies, and beyond what the right hon. Gentleman developed under the previous Administration. The Conservative Government did not produce a document or an analysis to which to work. [Interruption.] There was no White Paper; we have produced the first one on these matters for the past 20-odd years. We are saying that all the parts should be put together.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for what he said about Lord Rogers and his recommendations. We could not simply accept the report and write it into a White Paper; there has to be consultation. We have received good advice from Lord Rogers, but if the Government are to adopt it we must start a process of consultation. It would be nice to say, "I don't need to consult because I've put the report into the White Paper", but the House would not be very happy with that sort of approach, and rightly so. There will be a time difference.

The White Paper is more comprehensive than Lord Rogers' approach. If a Government receive a recommendation from an outside body that something should be done about tax, the right hon. Gentleman will know that there will be lengthy discussions and negotiations. I think that we can agree that the White Paper is more comprehensive than Lord Rogers' report, and that it is a move in the right direction. It builds on some of the successes to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, but takes things much further.

Maria Eagle (Liverpool, Garston)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement as a representation of an on-going commitment to improving inner city areas such as the one that I represent in Liverpool. I advise him not to listen too much to the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman), who on a recent visit to Liverpool indicated the extent of his knowledge of inner-city regeneration when he said that as he drove through Toxteth he had wound up his car windows. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the regional development agencies are key institutions for ensuring that the regeneration that is taking place is sustained? Will he say something about the hon. Gentleman's policy, which is to abolish them?

Mr. Prescott

I shall leave interpretation of the Opposition spokesman's visit to Liverpool, and what he said there, to others. Presumably, he noticed that the tower blocks have been knocked down there. I think that that is the one initiative that he advocates for regeneration—to knock down 10 tower blocks in five years. As there are 1,600 of them, I assume that he has an 80-year programme. It is an exciting initiative, but it will take a little longer to implement than some others.

The Opposition's policy on the regional development agencies is inadequate to meet the need. I believe that the agencies are a powerful force for development in the regions. They have been effective in Scotland and in Wales, and they have many supporters, including the CBI and many Tory councils, that want to see the agencies remain so that they can help to develop their regional economies. I think that as before, we shall see the Tories change their minds. It will be another bandwagon the Tories will jump on.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)

Has the Deputy Prime Minister lost his battle with the Treasury to impose VAT, albeit at a low rate, on greenfield development, as well as giving concessions on VAT in city centres? Will he revisit the proposal of the Minister for Housing and Planning in the housing Green Paper to limit rent increases to RPI plus zero, which threatens to dislocate the development programmes of housing associations, which are so important in inner cities? Does he still accept the words of the Minister for Trade when he took the Regional Development Agencies Act 1998 through the House—that the Government would be judged on their success in narrowing the GDP gap between the regions? Is that still valid?

Mr. Prescott

The right hon. Gentleman was a Minister in a Government who implemented many of the proposals that he wants to see changed. It was a Conservative Government who introduced VAT to the UK and created the problems to which he is referring. He had no success in his attempts to secure a reduction in VAT, and failed totally with the Treasury.

As for VAT payments and tax changes, an exemption will be introduced so that no stamp duty will be paid on property transactions in disadvantaged communities. There is the 100 per cent. capital allowance for flats over shops, which had been called for for a long time, even during the term of office of the previous Administration. There is a package of VAT reforms to encourage additional conversions of properties for residential use. I think that the right hon. Gentleman has expressed favourable views on those initiatives.

Mr. Curry

indicated assent.

Mr. Prescott

But he failed to convince the Treasury that VAT should be reduced, and it seems that I have been more successful. I am glad about that. Properties will be improved, and where he failed, I have succeeded.

Mr. Clive Efford (Eltham)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on being a member of a Government who have, in the words of the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman), brought about "unprecedented prosperity". I also congratulate him on the White Paper, especially with regard to the improvement of social housing. However, I shall express one concern. Some of the financial packages that have been put together to bring about improvements in social housing have led to stock transfer or to new build with registered social landlords. I am concerned about the long-term impact on the level of rents, especially re-let rents, for people who are transferred with some rights of tenure. Rents may no longer be affordable. We should pay some attention to that in the context of the White Paper and the future housing Green Paper.

Mr. Prescott

Whether social housing is in the public or the private sector, people want decent housing. We are working in both areas. As for stock transfers, my hon. Friend knows that we are trying to give local authorities more choice. I announced that in the Green Paper. My hon. Friend raises a legitimate concern, which most of us are aware of, about the level of rents. That will arise especially in the London area, given its special difficulties and the social transfer arguments.

The Green Paper makes it clear—consultation is taking place—that we must have an affordable rent structure. My hon. Friend will know that housing finance is an important factor, along with the benefits and supports that are provided. We are taking those matters into account in our comprehensive review.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

Given that the Government's rough sleeper targets are proving far harder to achieve in London than elsewhere, may we have an assurance that London's complex and intractable problems will receive special attention, especially as London's wealth-producing engine does so much for the rest of the nation's economy? Finally, on a narrow but important point, will key workers in London include postmen?

Mr. Prescott

The right hon. Gentleman takes an interest in rough sleepers and often asks questions about them, so I think that he knows that we have reduced rough sleeping by 30 per cent. We still have more to do, but we have had some success.

As for categories of key workers, we have already had bids from teachers and postal workers, but it is for local authorities to judge those matters, as the key sectors in which there are shortages vary from area to area. However, we are providing resources and advice. I am sure that the House welcomes the £250 million that we are providing as a step in the right direction in dealing with the problem.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his pledge to put urban renaissance at the heart of planning. Will he meet the needs of my constituents by ensuring that the green spaces and play areas he mentioned are integrated into new housing developments on brownfield sites, not placed at a distance where security is a problem? Notwithstanding his comments about small households being the norm nationally, will he bear in mind that in constituencies such as mine, where there is a young multi-ethnic community, there is still a need for larger units to accommodate larger households and alleviate overcrowding?

Mr. Prescott

I agree with my hon. Friend. She reminds me of my recent visit to Peckham, where a big building had been knocked down and the resulting space integrated into a new community. I was delighted to read in The Guardian the other day that Peckham library, with its wonderful design and architecture, had received an international award. I am pleased to see the local community and individuals beginning to rule their own lives and make decisions about their community. That is exactly what I want to see developing in other inner-city areas, and the White Paper will ensure that the powers and resources needed are available. In addition, PPG1 will make it clear that the public realm is an essential part of the urban renaissance. The White Paper will assist local authorities to achieve that.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

I can find no mention in the White Paper and the Deputy Prime Minister's statement of the greatest disaster to overcome urban regeneration—the European Union ruling that gap funding was illegal. Is it not the case that the £250 million a year over five years announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the additional funding previously given to regional development agencies, will not nearly make up for the sums that would otherwise have gone into urban regeneration?

Mr. Prescott

I do not agree. However, any state aid or assistance as defined by the European Community is a serious matter. We have compensated regional development agencies and English Partnerships to deal with the difficulty. Ultimately, we are confident that the resources that we have announced will be able to go into all our proposals.

Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the White Paper. Will he take care to ensure that the urban renaissance takes in the entire urban area? My constituency, which falls outside the city council boundary, often misses out on urban regeneration grants. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that urban renaissance applies to the whole of the urban area and not only to the areas defined by city council boundaries?

Mr. Prescott

My hon. Friend makes an important point about boundaries, and about where urban areas, inner cities and suburbs begin and end. That is a real problem and one that is different in every area. We face the problem everywhere, in towns, cities, suburbs, market towns, rural areas and villages. In the main, economic regeneration tends to take place in the centre—usually, the city—but there is an obligation under planning requirements to ensure that all areas share in the prosperity. In PPG1, we shall emphasise that the overall, comprehensive approach is needed in respect of planning and development.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

I, too, welcome much of the White Paper, the intentions behind it and its recommendations in respect of inner-city housing. However, how does the right hon. Gentleman reconcile his fine words about the availability of inner-city housing with his continuing and unnecessary beneficial tenancy of an inner-city flat provided by a transport union, which is clearly contrary to paragraph 113 of the ministerial code of conduct?

Mr. Prescott

That is clearly not comparable.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

Listening to some of the questions put by Opposition Members, one might have thought that nothing had happened in the past three years, even though paragraph 7.6 of the White Paper lists a dozen major initiatives that have an impact on urban areas. The Government should be congratulated on delivering those programmes. However, paragraph 7.3 states that One of the strongest lessons from the past is that policies and programmes need to be comprehensive and tailored to the circumstance.

The initiatives listed demonstrate that the Government have delivered on a cross-departmental, comprehensive basis. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that no rules or regulations stand in the way of local communities acting on an equally cross-departmental basis?

Mr. Prescott

That is an important point. One of the purposes of the White Paper is to bring together all the different initiatives. I could have waited three years, carried out an analysis and then produced the White Paper, but the problems were so clear that we developed different policies relevant to the framework set out in the White Paper. It is fair to say that many of the things mentioned in the White Paper are policies that have already been announced in the House by the Secretaries of State for other Departments. What I have done is ensure that they come together within the White Paper framework. I shall certainly try to ensure that the policy we want to prevail in Government also applies in local authority areas. We want decision making on community and local strategies to involve not only local authorities but all community bodies, including those involved in housing, education, health and so on.

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test)

I, too, welcome the White Paper, which represents a considered, rounded approach, in stark contrast to the solutions for simpletons that we have recently been hearing from Opposition Members. Does my right hon. Friend consider that the transport requirements for effective urban regeneration can properly be applied within the requirements of transport policy in an urban area generally, as opposed to within a specific local authority area?

Mr. Prescott

That is a detailed and important point. Local transport plans should be relevant to the development of the urban area. However, the essential point, which will also have to be addressed in the rural White Paper, is that people should be able to move between the areas in which they live and work, inside and outside city boundaries. Those whose task it is to follow the advice set out in the White Paper face the important challenge to adopt a comprehensive approach, and we have provided the resources for them to do so. People in Southampton have been considering a solution using light railways, which would not be limited to Southampton's immediate area. Local authorities and local people make their decisions through the local transport plan, but such plans should not be confined to inner-city areas.

Mr. David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion)

As Member of Parliament for one of the areas that have applied for city status, may I tell my right hon. Friend with what eager anticipation we in Brighton and Hove await the announcement to which he referred? Brighton town centre has benefited from having a town centre manager, and I know that my right hon. Friend is aware that the all-party group on town centre management issues, which I have the pleasure to chair, commands considerable cross-party support. What role does he envisage for town centre management schemes in realising the aims of the White Paper? What proposals does the White Paper contain on sustainable funding for town centre management schemes?

Mr. Prescott

My hon. Friend will realise that which areas will be granted city status is a great secret. It is a matter for the Home Office. I do not know what the outcome will be and I am not involved in the decision, although I do, of course, read the bids and hear from Members of Parliament who lobby me on the subject. We must wait for the announcement.

With regard to the Association of Town Centre Management, many of its proposals are for the sort of schemes that we endorse in the White Paper. Much can be done in the public realm—for example, by improving transport—to develop our town centres. We have set out such plans, and the various funds available are sustainable. We plan funds for local authorities over a three-year period to enable them to plan ahead. It should be possible to provide the resources to improve our town centres, and I welcome the work done by the association.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

I accept the White Paper, but does my right hon. Friend agree that further thought should be given to ways of helping councils such as Burnley, which has 3,500 empty houses in the private sector? Demolition is extremely expensive, and there is little site value once those properties are demolished.

Mr. Prescott

My hon. Friend makes the point that I made to my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice). The renewal of private properties is a particularly difficult problem, which my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) has raised with me three or four times. I give him the same response as I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle: I will write to him and consider how we can assist further in dealing with that problem.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. I am sure that we shall return to these matters in the future, but now we must move on.