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29th April 2003

Of the many promises that Labour has failed to deliver since coming to power, one of the most important was their pledge to deliver joined-up government.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon): Of the many promises that Labour has failed to deliver since coming to power, one of the most important was its pledge to deliver joined-up government. The creation of the Deputy Prime Minister's super-Department was more symbolic of that aspiration than any other Department, just as he became symbolic of its failure when his Department was subsequently dismantled. His new Department has continued to fail in much the same manner, and the people of my county of Cambridgeshire know only too well about the failure of joined-up government.

It is the Deputy Prime Minister's Department that has forced the Cambridgeshire sub-region to build 4,500 new houses in Cambridgeshire, each year, every year, for the next 15 years-some 67,500 houses in total. That is a massive increase in an area where the local infrastructure is already massively overstretched: in some areas, almost to bursting point. We know that ours is one of the fastest-growing regions with one of the fastest-growing business sectors in the country. We also appreciate and are acting on the need to build more affordable housing, although in that regard I now understand that the Government have just threatened to scrap their grants for affordable housing.

What we note, however, is the lack of joined-up thinking in the process directed from Whitehall. Is the house-building diktat coming out of Whitehall being matched by proportionate increases in funding for Cambridgeshire's local schools, many of which are short of hundreds of thousands of pounds this year, for our police, for our transport infrastructure, for our social services, for our flood defences, for our rural support schemes and for our suffering local post offices, several of which have closed in my constituency in recent months? Of course not. Why? It is because the Government are simply not delivering.

In view of that failure, I am sure that my constituents would not be surprised to hear that the Select Committee recently reported a

"loss of coherence between transport, planning, housing, regeneration and environment policy".

Why has the Department failed to co-ordinate and co-operate properly with other Departments? Does it not realise that mass house building on flood plains in my constituency, which is the flattest part of the country, without co-ordinating with the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to build up flood defences, is bound to increase the misery of thousands of my constituents who spend six months a year, every year, in daily fear of being deluged? Flood defences are very expensive, so perhaps the lack of joined-up thinking is related to the real cost of doing things properly. Furthermore, we continue to see people moving to houses in southern areas such as mine from perfectly good habitable homes in the north. The Government are allowing the bulldozing of thousands of homes in the north, as they simultaneously command the concreting over of thousands of acres in the south, despite house prices remaining significantly lower in the north than in London and the south-east. That may say something for this Government's acceptance of people's desire to move to attractive, high-employment areas in the south, but it says little for their idea of joined-up thinking or effective regional policy. The fact remains that the north-south divide under Labour, because of Labour, is growing.

I now hear that even more homes are being planned for our green fields in the Cambridge-Stansted region at a time when the planning application for my constituency's largest brownfield development site, Alconbury airfield, has lain on the Deputy Prime Minister's desk for well over a year as he prevaricates about what to do with it. One use could be as an airport, which would be bigger than Luton's. Again, the consultation processes show a massive lack of joined-up thinking. The south-east regional airport study consultation document contains no thought as to the transport implications, no thought as to the housing implications, no thought as to the town planning implications for my constituency, and no thought for the pollution, particularly the noise pollution-let me add that the consultation document does not even give figures for noise pollution, and although the development would involve three quarters night-flying from the airport, noise at night is not even mentioned. When one sees all that, one has to wonder: does Labour not care or is it incompetent? I currently think: a mixture of both.

What do people in the south get as thanks for their relative success? The answer is: massive increases in council tax charges as a result of the Government's fiddled local government finance settlement, with 60 per cent. increases since 1997 and a shift of funding to the metropolitan boroughs to subsidise the failure of high-taxing, low-achieving Labour and Liberal councils. Conservatives have known for years that our councils charge lower rates and produce better results, and the recent Audit Commission report proves it.

Rather than investing in a better future for the north of this country through general taxation, the Government seem to believe that punishing southerners through swingeing council tax increases is the best way forward. It is not, and I suggest to them that they look to solve the problems of the north rather than pulling down the south.

Perhaps one of the most damaging impacts of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has been the erosion of local democracy and the proposals to introduce regional assemblies via the backdoor. Of the 552,655 residents of Cambridgeshire, only 48 responded to the public consultation on the issue-a response of less than 0.01 per cent.-and, presumably, not all of them were in favour of the proposal. I understand that that is broadly representative of the national figure of 5,500 responses out of 60 million people. For Labour then to claim that there is a public desire for regional assemblies is absolute nonsense. Should we not be surprised that this Government, who have so ably ensured that we do not have joined-up government, are trying to ensure that we do not have a joined-up Britain as well?

When the Deputy Prime Minister has a go at joined-up government, he gets it completely wrong. A series of centrally imposed Whitehall regional initiatives have utterly failed and, even according to the departmental Select Committee, they

"may have contributed to the tensions between communities in the north of England that resulted in the disturbances in 2001 in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham".

[Interruption.] It is a Labour-dominated Select Committee. When will the Government realise that what the country needs is not Whitehall-imposed nanny projects, but freedom to choose at a local level?

The Government want to do away with local choice and local government. Parish councils, which are so influential in my constituency, have been attacked relentlessly by this Government. The barmy new code of conduct and a host of other new regulations have led to more than 20 parish councillors resigning in my constituency alone.

Shona McIsaac: The hon. Gentleman says that he is concerned about local democracy and accountability, but can he tell us how many parish councils there are in his constituency and how recently they actually held elections? In my constituency, most parish councils simply co-opt.

Mr. Djanogly: The vast majority of parish councils in my constituency hold elections, but I can tell the hon. Lady an unfortunate fact. This year, they are holding fewer elections because fewer people have come forward. Parish councillors are not only resigning, but the Government's policies have caused people not to want to join parish councils. I remind her that parish councillors are unpaid volunteers. They do very much hard work on behalf of their local communities and not on behalf of Whitehall. That is probably why the Government are persecuting them.

Conservatives prefer to trust local people to run their local affairs. I am confident that the electorate will realise that over the next few days.

5.14 pm

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