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Hansard 18 Apr: Column 171-179 WH; 554-560 ...
Hansard 18 Apr: Column 171-179 WH; 554-560

Government changes to its assisted areas map were attacked during two debates by Liberal Democrat, Conservative and Labour MPs from all parts of the country who protested at parts of their constituencies being dropped from the revised map being submitted to the European Commission.

Areas highlighted by the MPs included the English/Scottish borders, East Anglia and Brighton. Opening a debate in Westminister Hall, Alan Beith, Liberal Democrat MP for Berwick-on-Tweed, said about 17,000 population in Berwick wards had been removed from the list of areas eligible for tier 2 status.

In adjoining Berwickshire eight wards were also dropped. The areas on both sides on the national boundary were clearly linked and many people travelled to work across the boundary.

More than 800 jobs had been lost in Berwick's textile industry since 1996.

'However, regional selective assistance is the key factor that is lost by removal from tier 2 status. The wards that are being removed include those that contain sites where just such selective assistance could be used - sites such as large factories, where substantial opportunities for promoting employment can be pursued,' added Mr Beith.

Desmond Turner, Labour MP for Brighton Kempston, said he had a similar problem.

'In my constituency, where one ward forms half of a new deal for communities pathfinder because it is in the top 5% of the local deprivation index and includes industrial sites capable of modernisation - where tier 2 status can be used to promote significant employment - has been replaced by a town centre ward that is so heavily developed with houses that not even a garden shed could be added to it.

'One could not possibly spend the money there. I am frustrated and puzzled,' explained Dr Turner. Mr Beith said in Berwick with the prospect of tier 2 status in January 1999, when the map was first published, at least three local companies drew up plans which would have meant about 100 new jobs. Those proposals would not now be eleigible for assistance and were in jeopardy.

He added: 'The original proposals were subject to extensive consultation, involving more than 350 responses and 40 meetings throughout the country. When the government proposed the original map, surely they were satisfied that it met the European Commission's guidelines and the local circumstances, so far as possible, on the basis of the consultation. Now the map is completely different.

'Some areas have been removed and others have been added that have not been subject to such consultation. Would it not have been better to have appealed against the European Commission's objections to the original map, as the government has the power to do so?'

Trade minister Richard Caborn said government had listened carefully to the local and regional partners, including regional development agencies. It also worked closely with the Scottish executive and the Welsh assembly.

He added: 'We found it hard tomaintain the July proposals in our negotiations with the commission. Indeed, the amendments that we announced last week were solely to meet the commission's concern about those proposals and not because we do not recognise the case that has been put forward today ... the British government do not have a free hand.

'Under the EC treaty the commission has sole competence in this area. We cannot pay any regional state aid without an assisted area map approved by the commission. We have, therefore, been faced with some hard choices.'

The government was hoping for clearance of the new map before the summer. 'That would then backdate to 1 January when a number of indicative offers were made to people who have made applications that we cannot pay,' said Mr Caborn.

The government had made two principal changes: it had had to reduce the population covered by a third of a million people, and it had to show that the areas proposed were more compact and self-contained. The minister told Mr Beith that overall, the coverage of the north east had increased by 10%, and a further increase to include Berwick-upon-Twedd could not be accomodated within the overall population reduction imposed by the commission.

Mr Caborn said, however, that two weeks ago the commission approved the UK's objective 2 map, which included Berwick and Berwickshire. The north east, including Berwick, would benefit from more than£400 million of objective 2 funding in the next seven years. In Scotland, the total value of objective 2 was abouyt£500m.

Opening the commons adjournment debate, Malcolm Moss, Conservative MP for North-east Cambridgeshire, said the new map 'brough disappointment and dismay...and delivered a body blow to the Fenland area'.

Fenland DC and King's Lynn and West Norfolk BC areas were to be withdrawn, and there was only to be three weeks for consultation.

Mr Moss added: 'The new criteria set by the commission require a reduced population coverage of the national map. The eastern region has provided 43% of the reduction. That can hardly be fair when eight regions are involved.

'The east of England is being asked to shoulder the lion's share of the proposed reduction, but has also received the lowest funding for its regional development agency and its inward investment effort.'

But the minister replied: 'The east of England region, even under the amended proposals, will have an increade in coverage on the assisted areas map, which was introduced in 1993.

'That increase has been made at a time when the overall population coverage has been reduced by a fifth. Overall, the amended proposals will represent a pretty good deal for the east of England region.'

And he added that the chairman of King's Lynn and West Norfolk BC's development committee had been quoted as saying that, incomparison with some other areas - including Yarmouth, Lowestoft and Luton - the area had not done too badly.

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