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House of Commons

Wednesday 22 March 1989

The House met at half-past Two o'clock

PRAYERS

[ Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]

PRIVATE BUSINESS

Associated British Ports (No.

2 ) Bill-- (By Order) Order for Third Reading read.

To be read the Third time on Thursday 6 April.

Associated British Ports (Hull) Bill

(By Order)

Birmingham City Council (No.

2 ) Bill-- (By Order)

Hythe, Kent, Marina Bill

(By Order)

London Underground (Victoria) Bill

(By Order)

Wentworth Estate Bill

(By Order)

British Film Institute Southbank Bill

(By Order)

City of London (Various Powers) Bill

(By Order)

Redbridge London Borough Council Bill

(By Order)

King's Cross Railways Bill

(By Order)

Orders for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 6 April.

City of London (Various Powers) Bill

Ordered,

That the requirement of S.O. 168 (Charges affecting public revenue to be printed in italics) shall be dispensed with in the case of the City of London (Various Powers) Bill.-- [The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means.]


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Oral Answers to Questions

ENVIRONMENT

Unified Development Plans

1. Mr. Thurnham : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what representations he has received about the proposed unified development plans ; and if he will make a statement.

The Minister for Water and Planning (Mr. Michael Howard) : The arrangements for the preparation of unitary development plans, including my right hon. Friend's strategic guidance, are well advanced. Responses are still being received to the draft strategic guidance for Greater Manchester.

Mr. Thurnham : Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that it is much better if planning decisions are made locally whenever possible, and that the Government's record is much better than that of the Labour Government in this respect? Does he also agree that when unified development plans are in place there should be far fewer appeals to the Secretary of State?

Mr. Howard : Unitary development plans should certainly improve matters further, and I expect them to lead to a much greater say for local people in the taking of planning decisions.

Mr. Conway : Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that local plans have particular significance for towns of historic importance--of which Shrewsbury is one, being among the top dozen on the Department's list of towns of specific importance? Shrewsbury, like the city of Durham is surrounded on three sides by a river and thus has particular planning difficulties, so the inspectors' recommendations to my right hon. Friend in respect of local plans are particularly important and should receive far greater credence.

Mr. Howard : My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the importance of historic towns such as Shrewsbury. The local plan provides the framework for giving local people a greater say in these matters. The sooner all local planning authorities make progress in the preparation of these plans, the greater their voice will be.

Water Privatisation

2. Mrs. Mahon : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment when he last met the chairmen of the water authorities to discuss water privatisation.

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Nicholas Ridley) : On Monday.

Mrs. Mahon : Has the Minister seen the letter sent to Members of Parliament by Gordon Jones and the chairmen of nine other water authorities? If so, does he agree that water has deteriorated under their stewardship? They have never fought for the industry, and now they are saying that it would be better off privatised. Does not the right hon. Gentleman believe that they have a vested interest in privatisation, and should he not ask them to resign, given that they have not looked after the industry?


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Mr. Ridley : I am grateful to the hon. Lady for drawing attention to the excellent and impartial briefing that the water authority chairmen issued for the Report stage of the Water Bill. The fact emerges clearly from that, as I am sure the hon. Lady will agree, that maladministration by the Labour Government is primarily responsible for the wretched condition of some rivers, including those in her area.

Mr. Heddle : Does my right hon. Friend agree that because of their incompetent management of the economy the Labour Government drastically cut investment in the water industry and in sewage treatment? Does he agree that the better way to get cleaner rivers, better beaches and new sewers is to denationalise the industry and release it from Treasury control?

Mr. Ridley : I entirely agree. It is a tragedy that we are having such a problem cleaning up the legacy of Socialism, which is to be equated with pollution on every occasion.

Mr. Winnick : Can the Secretary of State explain why, despite the massive amount of Government propaganda and his undoubtedly brilliant persuasion, the overwhelming majority of people in this country wholly reject the irrelevant, stupid nonsense of water privatisation?

Mr. Ridley : I am afraid it is true that the matter has been handled neither well nor accurately by the Opposition.

Mr. Rathbone : When my right hon. Friend met the chairmen, did he draw comparisons between the way in which the French independent water companies have raised the standards of water in their country and the sad performance of water companies and authorities in this country?

Mr. Ridley : It is not without interest that France--which, under its present Administration, is not loath to nationalise--has set its face against interfering with the highly successful performance of its privatised water industry.

Mrs. Ann Taylor : When the Secretary of State met the chairmen, did he discuss spending on advertising? Does he agree that it is wrong for the chairmen of publicly owned water authorities to refuse to say how much public money has been spent on selling the Government's privatisation policies? Do not the paying public have a right to know? Or does the Secretary of State think that, in anticipation, of privatisation the appointees concerned should stop behaving like public servants and start behaving like the Government's political lackeys?

Mr. Ridley : No, I do not agree. The water industry has every right to publicise its achievements and its wares and to make clear to the House what it believes to be the best way of achieving the increase in standards and efficiency that the country wants. It is strange that the hon. Lady should whinge and twinge because a publicly owned industry does not agree with her very foolish policies.

Housing (Marginal Land)

3. Mr. Stern : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he has any plans to increase the availability of marginal land for housing.


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Mr. Howard : The allocation of land for housing is primarily a matter for local planning authorities. However, authorities are encouraged to make maximum use of derelict or underused land in urban areas, and only last month we announced proposals by which local authorities in rural areas could permit low-cost housing for local needs to be built on land where planning permission for housing would not normally be granted.

Mr. Stern : I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that reply. Is he aware that in Bristol it is almost impossible for a young couple on average or below average earnings to obtain any form of housing in or near the city? Does he agree that removing any possible planning obstacle to the development of difficult and therefore probably low-cost land would help the housing problems in our cities?

Mr. Howard : I am sure that my hon. Friend is right. I hope that the authorities in Bristol and elsewhere will study closely our recent announcement, which should go a considerable way towards alleviating the problem.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett : Is the Minister aware that under his proposals he is trying to persuade the local authority in Stockport to find more land for housing than the local authority wants? Is he aware that between my constituency in Manchester and that of his hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Mr. Favell) a considerable area is currently used for golf courses or poor quality farm land? That area constitutes an ideal breathing space between the cities of Manchester and Stockport. Will he ensure that permission is not granted for building on that land, which would deny many people access to land on which they enjoy walking?

Mr. Howard : All applications for planning permission on that land and elsewhere should be dealt with on their merits and in accordance with the circumstances of the case. That is the basis on which they will be dealt with.

Mr. Steen : Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that there is no need to take marginal land or green field sites for housing when there are more than 80,000 acres of vacant and under-used public land on the registers? Those registers are eight years old. Although the Government keep saying that they want to do more, the registers continue to grow and more land will continue to come on to them unless my hon. and learned Friend does something about selling the vacant, derelict or dormant public land.

Mr. Howard : I am sure that my hon. Friend would not want to ignore the substantial amount of land that has been taken off the register. We are making substantial progress. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the opportunities that exist, which are being rapidly exploited.

Homelessness

4. Mr. Simon Hughes : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will seek to amend the homeless persons legislation to give local authorities a duty to make accommodation available for people under the age of 18 years who are homeless.

15. Mr. Roy Hughes : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what new proposals he has to combat homelessness.


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Mr. Ridley : My review of the homelessness legislation is not yet complete. I will announce the result as soon as I am ready to announce my conclusions, but it would be premature to speculate on whether any changes are to be made to the legislation.

Mr. Simon Hughes : Is the Secretary of State aware of the vicious circle confronting young people in London? They cannot get jobs because they have no homes, and they cannot get homes because they have no jobs. They end up--to use a phrase with which the right hon. Gentleman is familiar--"skippering", or sleeping rough. Given that the Government have billions of pounds to spare, will the Secretary of State assure the House that on completing his review he will address head-on the problem of youth homelessness in London? Will he ensure that positive measures are taken to address the present appalling position so that many of the young homeless in our capital are housed later this year and in the future?

Mr. Ridley : I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that we should do nothing to tempt young people to leave home, particularly when they do not have a home of their own to which to go. That is half the problem that we already face, and the hon. Gentleman's suggestion would exacerbate it. Over the past year, an additional £74 million has been made available to local authorities to deal with the most acute problems of homelessness, together with approval of £40 million additional housing association capital receipts to be spent on schemes focused on helping homeless families. That is a major contribution, despite the fact that there are still far too many empty council houses which could be used.

Mr. Roy Hughes : Is not the increase in homelessness a direct result of Government policies, as manifested by high interest rates, which lead to mortgage defaults and repossessions? Is it not due also to the Government's failure to allow local authorities to build houses for rent, which less well-off families so urgently need?

Mr. Ridley : The percentage of households rendered homeless as a result of mortgage arrears is declining, from 10 per cent. of those for whom local authorities accepted responsibility to find accommodation in the third quarter of 1987 to 7 per cent. in the third quarter of 1988. That does not bear out the hon. Gentleman's allegation.

Mr. Wells : Does my right hon. Friend agree that to make housing available to those under age 18 would encourage the break-up of families and lead to a serious situation in which young people would be encouraged to leave home and come to the capital looking for accommodation?

Mr. Ridley : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There would be some encouragement for young people to leave home in the mistaken belief that it might be a way of jumping the queue for council housing. I hope that young people will not think that. I equally concede, as would my hon. Friend, that there are a number of genuinely homeless people who cannot return home, and it is those whom we should seek to help.

Mr. Colvin : Is my right hon. Friend aware that it costs £180 per week to house a homeless family in bed-and-breakfast accommodation in my constituency, yet there are areas of derelict land--often in local authority ownership--and builders with low-cost housing


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schemes which together could provide accommodation for young homeless families at a lower cost per week than that of bed-and-breakfast accommodation? Will my right hon. Friend's Department be favourably disposed towards planning applications and, in particular, to appeals in relation to schemes of that nature?

Mr. Ridley : I have tried to take further measures to help in that kind of situation, with the announcement in February that local authorities can give planning consents for low-cost housing for local people as well as meeting their general housing provision obligations. That does not have to be in the most rural areas. It is one of the many routes already available whereby local authorities can secure extra housing provision, at the capital expense often of the private sector or of the Housing Corporation. I urge them to use it.

Mr. Soley : Why has the Minister created such an acute shortage of low-cost accommodation in Britain?

Mr. Ridley : I do not believe that I have created any such shortage. I believe that the shortage of housing resulting from a very restrictive planning policy pursued by many local authorities in the south of England has contributed to it. If there were enough houses for everyone, it would be possible for everyone to be housed, but in a housing shortage low-income families are inevitably last in the queue.

Land Registers

5. Dame Janet Fookes : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment how many requests he has received to include specific vacant sites of under one acre on the land registers.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. David Trippier) : Since 1985 to the end of February 1989, requests have been received for registration and disposal in respect of a total of 225 sites, of which 46 were for the registration of sites smaller than one acre in size.

In 1988, the amount of land on the land registers decreased by 6, 175 acres.

Dame Janet Fookes : I welcome the information given by my hon. Friend. Does he agree that the position regarding land would be clearer if all sites under one acre were included on the register and a supplementary register were kept of privately owned land, bearing in mind that the present register is for publicly owned land only?

Mr. Trippier : Under the present arrangements, the figures reflect that there has been considerable success in the removal of all land, public and private, from the register. The Ordnance Survey 1988 survey shows a further reduction of 4,199 acres of vacant land, a significant improvement on the previous year. That demonstrates that the policy is very successful.

Mr. Skinner : Is the Minister aware that many of those small plots of land are covered with litter? Will he ask the Secretary of State for the Environment to inspect every one of those sites, taking with him a little bag and the Prime Minister? Then he can bag it and bin it and stick her in it.


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Mr. Trippier : The hon. Gentleman makes his own contribution to the amount of rubbish by the speeches that he makes in the Chamber. I do not imagine that he is making a very good job of setting an example in his own constituency as he certainly makes a significant contribution to the rubbish here.

Housing Associations

6. Mr. French : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what was the level of home starts by housing associations at the latest date for which figures are available ; and what is the level expected to be reached as a result of the increase in funding for the Housing Corporation announced in last year's Autumn Statement.

Mr. Ridley : A total of 14,651 approvals had been given by the Housing Corporation in the current financial year up to the end of February. In 1991-92 the corporation expects to approve more than 32, 000 homes for rent and sale.

Mr. French : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the figures that he has given are ample proof of the housing associations' ability to provide affordable housing for those in need? Does he accept that the huge increase in public funding provided to the Housing Corporation, coupled with private finance and the management skills within the housing associations is enabling those housing associations to achieve an impact on local provision which has not been emulated by many local authorities?

Mr. Ridley : The figures show that the gross provision for the Housing Corporation programme was £1,328 million for 1991-92--an 80 per cent. increase on the original provision for the current financial year. That has since been increased by a further £40 million because of greater than expected capital receipts. That is a massive expansion. I agree with my hon. Friend that it should make a very great contribution, particularly as it is possible to target it on the areas of greatest need.

Mr. George Howarth : Will the Secretary of State confirm that in areas of low values or high costs housing associations are having difficulty making private finance work and that the only way in which they can make it work is by reducing standards?

Mr. Ridley : The areas of greatest need are not the areas of lowest cost. When I said that it is important to target finance, I had in mind the comments made by the hon. Gentleman's hon. Friends, that the main problem of shortage of rented houses arises in the south-east and London. That seems to tie up very nicely.

Mr. Key : I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his housing associations policy, which is reaching the village communities that we are anxious to preserve in rural constituencies. Will he confirm that private finance was introduced in a new way to the housing scene under the Housing Act 1988? Is he aware that locally politicians are anxious to promote new concepts of private finance, which they opposed when the Housing Bill was before the House, and that a scurrilous and dishonest campaign is being led by the Democrats in Wiltshire?

Mr. Ridley : The latter, including the adjectives, would not surprise me in the least. I confirm that we hope that by 1991-92, about 80 per cent. of schemes will be mixed


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funded. Total public provision will not only be increased by 80 per cent. it will be greatly enhanced by whatever private finance can be attracted to swell it still further. This is by far the best way to obtain value for money. I hope that all authorities--even Liberal, Democratic or whatever they are called--will realise the importance of these new measures.

Housing (Leicester)

7. Mr. Janner : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the housing investment programme allocation to Leicester city council for 1989-90.

Mr. Trippier : Leicester city council has been given a housing investment programme allocation of £8,555 million for 1989-90. It plans to add £43 million to this from capital receipts, most of which will be spent on improving and repairing the council's housing stock.

Mr. Janner : Is the Minister aware that that is a reduction in real terms of 26 per cent. in the allocation for the current year and will cause the gravest problems to the council's renewal strategy programme for private housing? Does he appreciate that there are 10, 000 applications on the housing list representing 25,000 people? Does he accept that this disgraceful gutting of the council's housing programme yet again is unacceptable and intolerable?

Mr. Trippier : I am sorry to have to argue again with the hon. and learned Gentleman. He chooses to ignore the amount of money--£43 million--drawn in by the local authority in capital receipts under the exercise of the right to buy, which is Government policy. He also chooses to ignore that amount of estate action funding that has been made available. It is only recently that Leicester city council has been prepared to work in partnership with the Department on that scheme. The hon. and learned Gentleman further chooses to ignore the fact that the council could increase right-to-buy sales and thus draw in further capital receipts. The hon. and learned Gentleman seems to be interested only in council housing and does not recognise that the substantial increase that we have given the Housing Corporation will enable more housing associations in Leicester to build more houses for those on low pay.

Mr. Jim Marshall : If the Minister will cool down, I am sure that he will recognise that in my constituency and that of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) there is a specific problem with Boot houses, which were built more that 60 years ago and have been found to have serious structural faults. As the Minister knows, Leicester city council has a demolition and rebuilding programme. Without doubt, leaving all political comments aside, it will experience severe problems. Will the Minister give a guarantee that, in specific and agreed circumstances, if a programme such as the demolition and rebuilding of Boot houses is placed in jeopardy he will be prepared to consider each case and, if necessary, allow increased additional expenditure?

Mr. Trippier : I am prepared to look at the problems with Boot houses in Leicester. I have already had one meeting in Leicester with Leicester city council. I am sympathetic to the problems the council faces with Boot houses and I have already made it clear that we would


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assist, wherever possible, with the additional private finance that the council is trying to secure. I understand that it is being successful in that regard. I still believe that, with the flexibility of the estate action programme, it is possible to help with the renewal programme in that part of Leicester. If the city council wishes to talk to me again with the hon. Gentleman or his hon. Friends, I am only too happy to meet it.

Mr. Tredinnick : Can my hon. Friend confirm that Labour-controlled Leicester city council has the worst record for reletting council homes in the whole of the east midlands?

Mr. Trippier : I can confirm that.

Mr. Janner : The hon. Gentleman knows nothing about it.

Mr. Trippier : My hon. Friend seemingly knows more about Leicester than does the hon. and learned Gentleman, whose constituency is in the city. What my hon. Friend has said is not fantasy or fiction, but fact. Leicester has the highest percentage of void stock. The total is 1,220, which is in excess of the number of homeless people registered in the whole county.

Neighbourhood Councils

8. Mr. Matthew Taylor : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what guidance he proposes to give to local authorities intending to devolve power to neighbourhood councils.

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Selwyn Gummer) : My guidance is to embrace the high aspirations, but to avoid the chaotic practice of Tower Hamlets.

Mr. Taylor : I welcome the Minister's statement about neighbourhood councils, as he accepts clearly that they are a progressive way to devolve power to the local communities. As the Minister knows, the rules about proportionality in the Local Government and Housing Bill may affect neighbourhood councils and he has said that he may take some action. Can he say what action he will take to ensure that the Bill does not conflict with the desire to devolve power?

Mr. Gummer : We are discussing the matter with local authority associations and have concluded that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will have powers under the Bill to make such regulations as are needed to enable neighbourhood councils to operate on a different basis. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will do his best to encourage the neighbourhood councils in Tower Hamlets to organise themselves so that we know how much they are spending and whose money it is.

Mr. Robert G. Hughes : Does my right hon. Friend accept that the people of Tower Hamlets thought that nothing could be worse than the old- fashioned carthorse of Labour control that had done so much damage to Tower Hamlets for so many years? But they were wrong. When the Liberals took control and introduced the neighbourhood councils, the people realised that the Liberals could be worse than the Labour party.


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Mr. Gummer : There is a major difficulty about helping Tower Hamlets at pesent because the council cannot tell us with any certainty about the financial pickle it is in. Until we know how big the pickle is, it is difficult to give advice.

Mr. O'Brien : Is the Minister saying that all parish councils, town councils and community councils mirror Tower Hamlets? Will he apologise to the local authorities associations, which he says he has met on this very issue, because there are a number of local authorities that we believe are doing a splendid job? The Minister should agree and appreciate the work that those authorities are doing. He should not assume that such councils mirror the scurrilous information he has been given by his colleagues.

Mr. Gummer : The hon. Gentleman cannot have read the question, which is about neighbourhood councils and not parish councils, of which I am thoroughly in favour and of which there are many in my constituency. The technical expression "neighbourhood councils" refers to councils such as those in Bethnal Green, Bow, Globe Town, Isle of Dogs, Poplar, Stepney and Wapping. The hon. Gentleman should read the question before he asks one of his own.

Planning Appeals

8. Mr. Rathbone : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment when he last reviewed the guidelines for granting costs against planning authorities when his Department gives planning permission on appeal.

Mr. Howard : A thoroughgoing review preceded the issue, in February 1987, of the current guidance in circular 2 of that year. The practical operation of the guidance is kept under continuing review.

Mr. Rathbone : Does my hon. and learned Friend accept that the present guidelines may give too much leeway to Government inspectors? Will he note that appellate costs are too often given against a council when permission is granted on appeal and that they often completely overlook important planning considerations and negate the proper functions of the planning authority?

Mr. Howard : If that were so, the councils concerned would have a remedy by way of judicial review. My hon. Friend will be aware that in two recent and important cases my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made what will undoubtedly turn out to be substantial awards of costs against developers. I assure my hon. Friend that the policy is applied in an even-handed manner.

Mr. Haynes : Not many moments ago, a Conservative Member congratulated the Secretary of State ; I reckon he is useless, and I mean that. I should like my local authority to become involved in planning for housing. Are the Secretary of State and the Minister for Water and Planning aware that we have not built any new properties in Ashfield since 1979, when that lot over there came into power? It would be nice to be able to use planning procedures to build for the youngsters who queue up at my surgery on Saturday morning and who cannot get properties in which to live. The Secretary of State ought to be ashamed of himself.

Mr. Howard : I hope that the hon. Gentleman will refer his local planning authority to the Government's policies, including those announced last month, which will give it


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ample scope to make proper provision for land for development to provide houses for the very people to whom he has referred.

Sewage

11. Mr. Kennedy : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment how much untreated raw sewage is poured into the sea each year.

Mr. Ridley : About 14 per cent. of the sewage from England and Wales is discharged to the sea where it is treated through the disinfecting actions of salt water, sunlight and waves which together break down the bacteria as effectively as inland treatment. That is why the Royal Commission on environmental pollution concluded in its 10th report that with well-designed sewage outfalls, discharge of sewage to the sea was not only acceptable but environmentally preferable in many cases to alternative means of disposal.

Mr. Kennedy : I thank the Secretary of State for that detailed reply. I realise that this matter falls within the ambit of the Scottish Office, but it also has general environmental interest, given the outfall area. Will he note that Highland regional council is currently backing a limited water sewage water treatment scheme locally, which is opposed by Ross and Cromarty and Inverness district councils and which has not so far been the subject of an environmental impact assessment? The Secretary of State for Scotland has refused to call it in. As the Prime Minister now poses as the green goddess, will the Secretary of State for the Environment invoke her name to encourage the Scottish Office to take a more responsible line, given the possible pollutant effects of the scheme?

Mr. Ridley : As the hon. Gentleman knows, that is a matter for my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. I would like to make the general point, however, that the best environmental option might well be to put the sewage out through a long sea outfall. That is what the experts recommend in many cases.

Sir Anthony Meyer : I am sorry to tell my right hon. Friend that I see no chance whatever of persuading my electors in north Wales to accept that answer. The plain fact is that sewage is being washed back on to our beaches, and we want to know how the new Water Bill will improve matters.

Mr. Ridley : I agree that there are many completely inadequate short sea outfalls, many of them dating from the Victorian era. That is why we have a major programme to extend outfalls to between 2 and 3 km out to sea so that the disinfecting action of the sea has time to act on the effluent before it can float back to the beach.

Mr. Pike : Does the Secretary of State realise that if he gives answers like that, people will not believe for one moment that the Government have any commitment to green solutions or to dealing with problems of pollution? Will he note, in particular, the opposition in Lancashire to the proposed extension of the Rossall sewage outfall near Fleetwood, to which there is overwhelming opposition and will he say that he is not prepared to let the North West water authority's proposal go ahead?


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