HL Deb 16 November 2000 vol 619 cc348-66

3.35 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement that has been made in another place by my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister on the White Paper, Our Towns and Cities: the Future. The Statement is as follows: "The Government have today published a White Paper on the future of our towns and cities. It 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 have been placed in the Library and we shall shortly be publishing our rural White Paper.

"A common message runs through these documents. They 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—communities in which economic prosperity and social justice go hand in hand.

"I am sure 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.

"The previous urban White Paper was produced by the previous Labour Government more than two decades ago. It 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. 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 face big challenges. People and jobs have been leaving our great cities. 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. 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 which we are now bringing together in the White Paper. We merged the Departments of the Environment and of Transport to encourage a more joined-up approach to solving problems. We got hundreds of thousands of young people back to work with the New Deal. We provided an extra £5 billion to begin tackling the £19 billion housing repair backlog 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. We began tackling the problems in our most deprived communities through the £800 million New Deal for Communities and the Social Exclusion Unit. Three hundred and fifty million pounds over three years have been committed to regenerate coalfield communities decimated by the previous government's policies.

"Modernising local government has been a priority. We have legislation 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. We are modernising the planning system and have set a new target of getting 60 per cent of new housing on developed land. The quality of construction is improving following John Egan's report, Rethinking Construction. We set up the Urban Task Force under Lord Rogers to look at the causes of decline in our urban areas and recommend practical ways to bring people back into our towns and cities.

"The White Paper builds on this 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'. "There are four key components of our strategy: improving the quality of life through a partnership with local people; sustainable communities in attractive, well-kept towns and cities; economic growth and shared prosperity in all urban areas; and good quality services.

"I shall deal first with quality of life. In this White Paper, we commit ourselves to work 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 the regeneration projects over the past 20 years is that local people must be fully engaged from the outset. All too often this has not been the case.

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

"Secondly, clearly, we want sustainable communities living in attractive, well-kept towns and cities, which use space and buildings well, and which are cleaner and less congested. My right honourable friend the Chancellor announced a £1 billion tax incentive package last week to promote the urban renaissance. As a result, more investment will be attracted into disadvantaged areas by the removal of stamp duty from all property transactions in those areas; the re-use of brownfield land will be encouraged through the provision of accelerated tax credits for cleaning up contaminated land; and 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.

"The new urban regeneration companies 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, particularly its parks, play areas and open spaces. These are the lungs of our towns and cities. We have set up a comprehensive programme including demonstration projects and an extended Green Flag awards scheme—like the Blue Flags 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' 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 London. In addition, we will also start a programme of international secondments to 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, and with good open spaces. 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. This is vital if we are to secure the widespread regeneration we seek. The fund will bring up to £250 million into new mixed-use projects.

"The third component is creating the conditions for economic growth and shared prosperity in all towns and cities. We want to see more wealth generated and social justice side by side. Growing disparities and exclusion from our increasing, national prosperity are unacceptable. 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 the Chancellor announced last week that we would be consulting 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 a 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 businesses are seeking. We are therefore setting up the new learning and skills council with a budget of £5.5 billion a year—up £600 million. This 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 life-long learning and to reduce the skills mismatch.

"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.

"The fourth component is good quality services. By 2003–04 there will be £139 billion a year for key services: health, education, transport., housing, criminal justice as well as culture, leisure and sport. That is £33 billion more than now. It amounts to an average annual real increase of nearly 7 per cent a year for the next three years. This extra money will be backed by tough targets to ensure that we see 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 the next 10 years. We are providing the resources needed to make this 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 buy homes. We will shortly be setting 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 honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment announced that performance in the first Excellence in Cities areas has improved much faster than elsewhere.

"As my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health made clear earlier this week, your health should not depend on where you 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 this 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, often forgetting people. 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 pressures of growth need to be carefully managed. We have set out the way to achieve this and have provided the money to back it up. But government on their own cannot deliver. 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. This will be advised by a new group, bringing together community, academic, professional, private and business interests. We will be accountable. The Cabinet Committee will prepare for an urban summit in 2002 which 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. There was litter, graffiti, empty houses and a general air of decay, but a strong sense of community. 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.

"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. It is a comprehensive strategy, the first for nearly a quarter of a century. It represents a commitment by the Government to put people first, and to ease the pressure on the countryside by attracting people back into our towns. I commend this White Paper to the House".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.49 p.m.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, the whole House will be grateful to the noble Lord for repeating the Statement made in another place by his right honourable friend. The White Paper is welcome in many ways. In particular, it is welcome for its recognition that solving the problems of urban areas requires the participation of so many different, separate and diverse bodies, all a part of our community and all required to work together for success.

I join in the tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Rogers, for his very stimulating and interesting report on urban renewal. He brought a fresh eye and a modern look to what is in fact a very old problem. I well remember a study carried out in Essex in the late 1960s on urban regeneration which looked particularly at housing densities. In those days—a long time ago—it was recognised and officially recommended that for inner urban areas the maximum height anyone ever needed to go to maximise housing densities was five or six floors. I welcome the Secretary of State's acceptance of that philosophy. He has recognised that, for humane housing, terraces have a good deal to commend them.

The fact of the matter is that this planning White Paper is very well planned. We have seen three-and-a-half years of relative inaction in this field. Now, as we head towards another election, the Government have realised that they need to have a great deal hanging out in front for the public to see. Therefore, we have had promises of expenditure, many of them long-term strategies which the Government themselves may not survive long enough to implement. That is a reality. The White Paper is well planned and I congratulate the Government on that. But whether that will influence the public, who have seen some delay in bringing forward these proposals, remains to be seen.

Another point needs to be made—the Minister will recognise this one. We need to be extremely careful when we set out to measure output and pretend that measurements of expenditure are measurements of output. We have heard promises of large increases in investment over time. Where the money supply to an organisation is expanded very rapidly—the Minister who, like me, deals with local government will recognise this point—there is need for extreme care if one is to avoid inefficiencies in the use of that resource. We have spent a great deal of time arguing across the Dispatch Boxes over how to get best value out of local government. The same principles that apply there will unquestionably apply in the application of resources to improve our urban communities.

I note that there is to be a review of PPG1, particularly with regard to compulsory purchase. On page 58, the White Paper mentions both Leicester and Medway as being examples of authorities which are already using their powers successfully to regenerate communities. The White Paper refers to stimulating the regional development agencies into doing more. If communities are already acting successfully in this field—and they are—I am not absolutely convinced that we need to change the procedures for compulsory purchase or confuse many of the issues by introducing the regional development agencies into this area.

Local government at large will welcome the recognition in the White Paper that it has a large part to play, both through the planning process and through the services it provides. Local government has a strong influence on the ethos and success of its communities. That applies whether the community happens to be London, under its mayor, one of the metropolitan boroughs, a county or an ordinary town. Good communities with active participation make good towns. There is nothing like people coming together to pull the community forward. Of course, there have always been areas with intractable problems. That is particularly the case in inner city areas.

Housing is expensive because people can afford it. That may be a statement of the blindingly obvious, but if people could not afford houses, prices would not be where they are. But there are acute problems for essential workers in city centre areas. It is disturbing to read in the latest edition of Housing Today that the cost of new building is threatening housing associations' ability to provide social housing. It is a problem to which there is no easy answer.

A great deal could be done. But substandard and unoccupied housing in inner city areas will continue to be a problem for as long as green field development has a VAT privileged position over repairs to, and renewal of, inner city property. That is a long-standing problem which we have raised and debated on a number of occasions. It is not mentioned in the White Paper. That is a matter of regret.

Nonetheless, the White Paper is welcome. It will not he an absolute solution but it will certainly stimulate action. If it does that, and if our communities respond to that stimulation, I have no doubt that in a few years' time many communities will be in a much better position than they are today.

3.57 p.m.

Baroness Maddock

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement on the White Paper made in another place by his right honourable friend. We welcome the vision outlined in the paper. To be honest, who would not? Our vision is one of towns, cities and suburbs offering a high quality life and opportunities for all, and not just the few. Our vision is one of attractive and well-kept towns and cites, places that are environmentally sustainable, and of people sharing in the prosperity. It is described as a new vision. Many of us have been waiting for a long time to see that vision realised in our towns and cities. In many places some of the vision has been realised.

As recognised in this House and in another place, we owe a lot to the noble Lord, Lord Rogers, not only for bringing to our attention the urgency of taking action in our urban areas but also for bringing forward fresh thoughts and new ideas. The challenge is to make it happen. To make the vision become a reality, several steps need to be taken. Various levels of government will need powers to enable them to carry out certain tasks and they will also need resources. Incentives will be important in encouraging people to do what is required of them. Furthermore, realistic targets will have to be set if the Government's vision is to be realised. I shall say more on that subject in a few moments.

On the question of powers, the Government say that they want to look carefully at planning law. That is welcome. The White Paper—I have not had enough time to read all of it and some of the answers to my questions may well be in the document—states that the Government will look at planning law and that they will set up a commission or other body to do that. Perhaps the Minister could indicate the timescale here, because this is an urgent matter; indeed it is even more urgent now than when the Government came to power three and a half years ago.

Perhaps I may turn to resources. I should have liked to see in the White Paper an indication that the Government recognise that there are many different pots of money for which councils and others may bid and secure. I hope that the new Cabinet committee to be set up by the Government will examine ways of rationalising these procedures. Having too many pots of money on offer is not an efficient way to progress matters.

Another important area for which additional resources are needed is addressing the problem of the condition of our housing stock. I have not yet had a chance to read the relevant sections, but there appears to be little in the White Paper as regards what will be done in this area. It is an urgent matter and, indeed, it is one that we have discussed in this House on previous occasions. I hope that the Minister will be able to clarify the position. At the same time, can the Minister tell the House how much new money will be involved? Some of us harbour suspicions that we are told several times about allocations of the same money. Perhaps the Minister will confirm the position as regards new money.

Can the Minister also tell the House how the Government plan to help local authorities to meet their extra responsibilities, in particular their financial commitments? In this House and in the other place, we are fond of placing extra duties on local authorities— I, too, have supported legislation of that kind—but the authorities do not always have access to the necessary resources to implement those duties.

I shall turn now to incentives. We welcome some of the incentives which were announced by the Chancellor last week because they will help to progress some of these policy initiatives. However, like the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, I am disappointed that we have heard only silence on the harmonisation of VAT and on the matter of a tax on greenfield development. I shall refer to another tax matter that affects local authorities. The White Paper mentions the possibility of holding a consultation on the question of a local tax for certain areas. Perhaps the Minister could expand on that part of the Statement and indicate whether a timescale has yet been planned.

I should have liked to see more emphasis placed on the need for sustainability, in particular as regards increasing the energy efficiency of buildings—I acknowledge that this was mentioned briefly—and the proper use of other resources, such as water. Furthermore, will targets be set on improving the atmosphere within our cities? Much talk has taken place on setting targets for transport, but the need to get people out of their cars, thus improving the air we have to breathe, is also a matter of great importance.

Perhaps I may conclude by returning to the issue of targets. Have the Government put in place targets as regards how many houses will be brought up to a reasonable standard; how many empty homes they wish to do away with; bringing back into use property over shops; and how many people can be persuaded not to use their cars? If there is to be a Cabinet committee that will report to an urban summit, how will it be able to tell us what it has managed to achieve over the years if targets are not set at the beginning?

We welcome the joined-up nature of the White Paper. We now want to see joined-up thinking in terms of finance and in terms of sustainability. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to some of the questions that I have put to him this afternoon.

4.4 p.m.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, and to the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, on the Opposition Front Benches, both for the general welcome they have extended to this report as well as for their thanks for the work carried out by my noble friend and colleague Lord Rogers of Riverside. This White Paper has drawn much of its direction and inspiration from that work.

I would also endorse the indication given by the noble Lord at the beginning of his remarks; namely, that if we are going to deliver in this field, it is extremely important to establish a substantial degree of working together, both at the local level and between national bodies and local authorities. That applies in particular to local government itself. I am therefore pleased to be able to say that local government bodies of all political complexions, through the Local Government Association, have welcomed the report and now look forward to working together to deliver those aspects of the White Paper which fall within the jurisdiction of local authorities. Furthermore, they will take the lead in their local communities. The development of community strategies at local authority level will form an important delivery mechanism for all the areas covered by this White Paper.

The noble Lord referred to a number of matters. He mentioned our approach to housing and housing densities. It is certainly the case that we recognise that the pressure on housing—as a result of the changing demographic structure of households—means that we shall need to provide more of the kind of high-quality terraced Victorian and Georgian housing which has given so many such a good quality of life. We need to be able to match those standards of housing over the coming century. The only way in which we shall square the need to regenerate our urban areas with the need to restrict development on greenfield sites and thus impingement on our rural areas is to have sensible targets for housing and sensible approaches to the kind of housing of which local authorities and their planning systems will approve.

I also agree with the noble Lord that expenditure is not an output, it is an input. We are concerned that we should establish clear measurements of the output that we shall achieve over the coming period and that the very substantial expenditure which we shall invest in services in urban areas yields the kind of results we wish to see. Some actions have already produced good results. Indeed, I would quarrel with the noble Lord on his mild, but nevertheless slight note of dissent when he referred to the "relative inaction" of the past three years. As regards the financing of urban services, the improvement of transport systems through local transport planning, increased investment in affordable housing and money allocated to local housing authorities to improve their own housing stock in the area of social housing, all of these have already yielded significant results in terms of increased jobs available in our cities, in improved housing and in reductions in crime. All of those improvements are measurable for the future. To that end, we shall seek equally measurable and clear results gained as a result of the increased expenditure and changes to a more strategic approach which is being adopted in the White Paper.

The noble Lord referred to the importance of enabling essential workers to live in our inner cities. It is vital that the approach to housing—some of which will be covered in more detail when we announce the action shortly to follow the publication of the White Paper—meets this need. We have already set ourselves the target of bringing all social housing up to a decent standard and of helping home ownership through schemes such as the "home buy" scheme and, more important, the new "starter home" initiative. Such schemes will assist key workers in areas of high housing demand. I agree that it is extremely important to ensure that key workers who support our cities and provide the services that we need are able to live within them.

The noble Lord was slightly disparaging about the need to re-examine the whole area of compulsory purchase. No doubt he will agree that there is a certain amount of archaic difficulty attached to the current compulsory purchase regime which often restricts desirable developments. These arrangements need to be reviewed; indeed, much of the legislation goes back to the 1840s. I am sure that the noble Lord is aware of that—not that he was personally around to see it, but on occasion it seems as though he could have been, given his long career in local government. This matter needs to be addressed.

On a more serious note, the noble Lord attacked the role of the regional development agencies. By and large, RDAs have been welcomed by the business community and by those who seek the regeneration of our urban areas as well as some of our rural areas. The role of the RDAs is to act as catalysts. That is a vitally important component in the development of economic prosperity. I hope that the main Opposition party will reconsider its somewhat outdated opposition to the existence of the RDAs. They are performing a great service. In this context, as in others, they will continue to deliver many of our economic aims.

The noble Lord and the noble Baroness referred to the question of balance in the VAT regime between greenfield and brownfield sites. I am aware of the arguments on this front and the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Rogers, but the package put forward by the Chancellor of the Exchequer last week provides a targeted rather than blanket favouring of developments and conversions within urban areas. The combination of measures introduced in the Pre-Budget Statement—the exemption from stamp duty, the accelerated payable tax credits, the 100 per cent allowance for creating flats over shops for letting and the package of VAT reforms to encourage additional conversions—is a much more targeted approach. It will help develop brownfield sites and thereby reduce the pressure for building within our countryside and in the non-urban areas. It is a co-ordinated approach across urban areas which will also benefit rural areas. We shall be issuing our rural policy White Paper before the end of the month.

The noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, referred to resources. There are substantial references to resources; I shall mention one area. An extra £33 billion has been announced relating to services in urban areas and there is the £1 billion package from the Chancellor. But, of course, some is still to come through the review of local government finance, which will, I hope, have a comprehensive "single pot" approach to give local authorities more flexibility to meet their own aims within local areas.

There are references to how we will improve the planning system, both here and more generally, and there will be both national targets—as there are already in relation to transport and air quality, for example, to improve the quality of life in our cities—and local authority targets. All of this will need to be addressed and reported on in time for the urban summit in 2002.

4.13 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, for about seven years as a Minister in the previous government, I was privileged to be a sponsor Minister for Cleveland and Teesside, where vast acres of polluted land were converted successfully in a very good regeneration programme. That regeneration programme can be repeated in the—

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, perhaps I may draw the attention of the noble Baroness to the fact that the 20 minutes is supposed to be for Back-Benchers to ask questions and make brief comments.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am certainly not aware that anyone on this Bench can be prevented from speaking in a debate such as this. Unless I am prevented by the whole House or by the Clerk, I should like to finish my point.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Companion is very clear: it refers to Back-Benchers. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, is not a Back-Bencher.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am speaking from the Privy Council Bench.

Lord Greaves

My Lords, page 17 of the White Paper refers to Blackburn and Ipswich as being "smaller towns". Do the Government understand that some of us are a little alarmed that large towns such as Blackburn and Ipswich can be described as "smaller towns". Throughout the north of England—in the North-East, Yorkshire and East Lancashire where I live—there are many towns with populations as low as 10,000 people which have real inner urban area-type problems and deprivation. Will the Government guarantee that, for the first time, small towns with such problems will get a fair share of resources?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am happy to acknowledge the noble Lord's point. Compared with many of the towns which will benefit from the approach in the White Paper, Ipswich and Blackburn will look like very large towns indeed. I am happy to tell him that we recognise the significance of all towns in this context. Every town and city is different. The LGA statement today said that it was delighted that the Government have ruled out the "one size fits all" solution. This approach will meet the problems and ambitions of the towns in the part of the country to which the noble Lord referred. I should also mention that within the rural policy White Paper we will deal specifically with the issue of market towns.

Lord Filkin

My Lords, perhaps I may ask the Minister about the challenge of leadership in urban areas, particularly in metropolitan areas. I warmly welcome what has been said about the role of local authorities and I acknowledge the importance of the contributions of regional development agencies. But for many of our metropolitan areas, where some of the greatest challenges for urban regeneration exist, the core city is a very small proportion of the total functional area. No one in their right mind would argue for a reorganisation of local government in those areas, or simply think that regional government—were it to come—would itself be an answer to that. The functions and issues lie at sub-regional level. The challenge perhaps seems to be how one encourages local authorities, the private sector and the voluntary sector to work on problems which are wider than the individual local authority without having structural change. I am therefore particularly interested in the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, about trying to find appropriate incentives to promote that kind of joint working.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that many of these problems will need to be addressed at levels higher than the individual local authority and lower, at ward level and below. Having a comprehensive approach and flexibility over funding ensures that we are able to encourage co-operation between local authorities and across local authority boundaries. Again I emphasise—particularly to the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith—the importance of the role of the RDAs in helping to engender this kind of sub-regional co-operation.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

My Lords, I welcome the general thrust of the White Paper. Perhaps I may press the Minister to return to the issue of housing. First, I should like to ask him about the use of the compulsory purchase powers, to which he alluded earlier, and whether they will be used particularly in the context of empty houses, which can be such a blight on so many areas. The Minister will be aware that in many urban areas they become a breeding ground for vermin; they are tinder boxes and sometimes become places from which drugs are sold. Often they stand empty for many years on end, much to the frustration of the people living in those areas. The cancer then spreads through the whole of the terrace and then through the whole of the estate. It is probably one of the most pressing needs. Will the compulsory purchase powers be used particularly to tackle that problem?

Perhaps the Minister will also say a word about ownership of property. Does he agree that one of the great success stories of the past 30 years has been the dismantling of the municipal empires and the giving of power to tenants? Does he further agree that that revolution needs to be continued with a radical handing-over of power to the tenants by giving them control through housing co-operatives or through personal home ownership? That is the best way of giving people a real stake in their community.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, as to the noble Lord's first point, I recognise precisely the kind of situation he referred to in some of our inner cities. It is important that local authorities and developers can put together packages which are not inhibited by a failure to acquire the ownership of derelict and often abused properties. The holistic approach that we are encouraging will help in that direction.

So far as concerns compulsory purchase, we are engaging in a review and, as I indicated, because of the slightly archaic nature of the legislation in this area, that review may require us to bring before your Lordships legislation to improve the powers to the extent that the noble Lord wishes.

As to ownership of housing, I partly agree with him. I certainly believe that giving power and responsibility to all forms of tenure—whether it be to owners, tenants in the social housing sector or tenants in the private sector—is very important. If we take responsibility, we take pride. Taking responsibility for the future of where we live makes a great difference. I believe that that can be achieved under all forms of housing tenure—local authorities, housing associations, the private sector and owner occupiers. Some of the decisions on the exact mix of housing ownership and housing tenure are best kept to a local level.

Lord Naseby

My Lords, last weekend, when I was dusting my books, I came upon the national plan of Lord George-Brown. It was full of aspirations, part of which concerned urban renewal. But that did not happen. As the Minister quite rightly praises local government, perhaps I may ask him, first, whether he thinks that local government will welcome the prospect of elected local regional councils—or is that particular aspect now put on the back burner? Secondly, if he is to look at compulsory purchase powers, will he look at the French model, which is considerably more generous to those who are being compulsory purchased and therefore tends to encourage them to co-operate a lot quicker? Finally, in relation to regional transport, is the Minister able to tell the House the exact proposals for the privatisation of London Underground, for which we have waited for three and a half years? Have they now been agreed by the Government, so that they no longer have White Paper status but have some finality to them?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Macdonald of Tradeston has frequently explained the situation in regard to the PPP for London Underground, with which we are proceeding. Contractual arrangements will be announced when appropriate.

As regards the noble Lord's earlier questions, regional assemblies have by and large been welcomed on the voluntary basis on which they are established at the moment by local government. In some parts of the country there is a clear desire for an elected regional assembly. We have indicated that we shall establish such regional assemblies as and when there is a clear demand in the regions for them. As I say, the view differs in different parts of the country. There is substantial demand in the North East and to some extent in the North West, but less so elsewhere.

In relation to the French system of compulsory purchase, and indeed planning in total, we are taking into account a number of aspects of European models in the planning and compulsory purchase area of our review. So watch this space!

Baroness Uddin

My Lords, I am delighted to see the White Paper, although, as mentioned, there has not been time to study it closely. Will the Minister commend the relentless and long-standing efforts of Tower Hamlets and other councils to regenerate their areas in extremely difficult circumstances over the past 20 years? Will he do so, however, with one reservation; namely, that the ethnic minority communities were not able to take a strong lead in any of the quangos set up as a result of some of those initiatives? Will the Minister assure the House that he intends to take seriously and redress that issue? Will he give a further assurance that, wherever urban renewal takes place in a new manner, the ethnic minority communities will not just be pandered to in terms of taking part, but that steps will be taken to ensure leadership from those communities, so that they, as well as the rest of the country, will be able to experience the sought-for urban renaissance?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. It is important that the communities in our inner cities, many of which are of multiple ethnic origin and background, must be fully involved if we are to deliver a better quality of life for the city as a whole. It is important that all the schemes, whether they are backed nationally, or whether they are produced at local level, as I hope most will be, engage the ethnic minority communities. I recognise both the efforts of Tower Hamlets and the problems within that area which is one of the most deprived in this country. I hope that we shall see the full engagement of the whole community in helping to redress the situation.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords—

The Earl of Listowel

My Lords—

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I think there is time for both noble Lords. Perhaps we should hear the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, followed by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of London's greatest assets is the River Thames? The Thames is much cleaner than it was, and much of the development in Docklands has been very successful. The Minister can presumably give some credit to the previous administration for both those aspects. Why, on page 134 of the White Paper in the section on London, is there no mention of the River Thames? Is the Minister aware, to take just one example, that at this very moment, between Vauxhall Bridge and Chelsea Bridge on the north side of the Thames, new private palaces are being built on the river front that will shut off access to the river for the next 100 years? Will the Minister consider encouraging the Mayor of London to use the compulsory purchase powers to open up the River Thames to the people?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I have considerable sympathy with the noble Lord's final point. I accept that the Thames is a major asset for London and Londoners. It is not mentioned specifically in the London part of the White Paper. I am riot sure that the Trent is mentioned specifically either, or any other river. The problem in regard to some developments on the Thames is this: under the GLC, new developments had to provide for access to the river if they abutted it. That provision was dropped as a result of the abolition of the GLC and those powers reverted to the riparian boroughs. The developments to which the noble Lord refers, although large, are not large enough to fall within the powers of the Mayor of London. I believe that all are a matter for Westminster City Council and, I am informed on good authority, for Kensington and Chelsea council. That is where the responsibility in planning terms initially lies.

The Earl of Listowel

My Lords, will the Minister recognise as being among the most important beneficiaries of the White Paper the family I visited in bed-and-breakfast accommodation last week? They had been living there for 12 months, depending on take-away food; there were four children aged from one to 11, and the five year-old was waking up in the night with nightmares and showing other signs of high anxiety as a result of those living conditions? Does the Minister recognise that family as typical of the families who will benefit from the outcome of the White Paper?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I hope so. Clearly, in many of our cities, London in particular, homelessness and lack of appropriate housing for families and especially for young people is one of the blights of our cities. It is to be hoped that the developments foreshadowed and the resources allocated in the White Paper and our other policies will address that problem. The Statement that is to follow the housing policy Green Paper will also be relevant.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that the report is of real importance and that it should be debated at greater length? Does my noble friend accept that we are justified in hoping that a considerable amount of attention will be given in that debate to the need to avoid eating into the green belt when in many cases there is a perfectly reasonable alternative? My noble friend has mentioned brownfield development. There have been many good developments on brownfield sites, and more are needed. I think, for example, of the site near to my home. A few years ago it was a burning colliery spoilheap; last summer I counted 11 species of butterflies on it. That is the kind of transformation that is needed in many other areas. Does my noble friend accept that greater public attention might encourage that kind of necessary development?

Perhaps I may ask one other question. Our towns are frequently built along rivers, in many cases for vital historical reasons. But planners do not seem always to have paid much attention to the rising tides and the effect of climate change. Can we ensure that future development, unlike a great deal of development over the past 20 years, will take proper account of that phenomenon?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, on my noble friend's second point, the events of the past few weeks have indicated that sometimes, despite the recommendations of the Environment Agency, planning permission has been granted by local authorities for developments vulnerable to flooding. If climate change has the effect that now seems apparent and floods become more frequent, that will increasingly be a problem. I hope, therefore, that attention will be paid to that. The House will know of the additional resources announced by my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister to deal with the immediate situation.

So far as concerns the green belt and greenfield sites, it is important that we connect the proposals in the White Paper to encourage development on brownfield sites in our cities and towns with the need to reduce pressure on the countryside. I was gratified to see, in relation to the announcement by the Chancellor last week of fiscal incentives, that the spokesman for the Council for Rural England said that he very much welcomed the package of measures harnessing the tax system to breathe new life into our cities, which at the same time was bringing great benefits and helping to save thousands of acres of England's countryside. That juxtaposition needs to be seen as part of this strategy.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, in adding my welcome for the White Paper, perhaps I may express the hope that the improvement of the condition of existing housing will figure very largely in its implementation—a point made by my noble friend Lady Maddock and by the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath. As the noble Lord will be aware, successive house condition surveys have shown that something like 20 per cent of the housing in this country is either substandard or requires major renovation and repair. This issue is very closely related to the problem of fuel poverty that will be considered shortly on the Third Reading of the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Bill. Can I hope that the targeting to which my noble friend referred will also be applied to that issue and that, in the next house condition survey, we shall see a real dent being made in the number of substandard houses in Britain today?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I can reassure the noble Lord that the allocations given to local government of £5 billion for improvements in the housing stock, which apply to social housing, their own stock and to owner occupied stock, will help to make a serious attack on the backlog of poor housing and lack of repairs as regards existing housing stock. As to fuel efficiency, the noble Lord will know better than most people the range of measures that the Government are undertaking, the incentive and the framework for which are very much reflected in the warm homes Bill that we shall shortly be considering and upon which he has had a considerable influence. Those schemes will improve the quality of housing as well as tackling the fuel poverty of their inhabitants.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, can my noble friend the Minister give the House an assurance about the problem of the disposal of playing fields by some local authorities to developers? My noble friend will recall that this matter was referred to a few weeks ago when it was revealed that this undesirable practice was continuing, notwithstanding the change of government in May 1997.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I recognise this problem; indeed, my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister referred to it in his Statement as being one of the contributory factors to reducing the quality of life in many urban areas. We do impose a stricter regime than had been the case prior to this Government coming into office. Nevertheless, some selling off of playing fields seems to be continuing. This matter needs to be seriously considered by local authorities, and the owners of those playing fields, if they are to make a serious contribution towards the quality of life in our inner cities. The Government are determined to play their part in that process.