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House of Commons

Wednesday 24 May 1989

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions


Unleaded Petrol

1. Mr. David Martin : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what percentages of car refuellings now take place at garages which stock unleaded petrol.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mrs. Virginia Bottomley) : There has recently been a dramatic increase in outlets. The UK Petroleum Industry Association has advised that approaching two out of three refuellings now take place at petrol stations where unleaded fuel is available.

Mr. Martin : I welcome that reply from my hon. Friend and also the leaflet, "Adjust to Unleaded", which the Department of the Environment and the Department of Transport are producing and which I hope will have very wide circulation. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the wider availability of unleaded petrol is vital if we are to have more stringent controls on exhaust emissions? What are the Government doing about that and what do they intend to do in the future?

Ms. Bottomley : I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. The "Adjust to Unleaded" leaflet is supposed to give practical advice and encouragement to people to use unleaded petrol. It is certainly the case that the distribution and use of unleaded petrol pave the way towards the strict car emission standards to which we are committed. I know that my hon. Friend will welcome the announcement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State today that--provided that the industrially unrealistic interim standard of 1991 is withdrawn and there is a commitment to respect the unity of the market--we shall agree to the Commission's proposals for the new standards for small car exhaust emissions.

Mr. James Lamond : While joining in congratulating the hon. Lady on the information that her Department has issued to the public, I draw her attention to one point. When the owners of a number of cars listed as being fully available to use unleaded petrol consult the dealers--for example, Volkswagen vehicles--they are told that they have to use a tank of leaded petrol from time to time to keep the engines in good order. Will the hon. Lady investigate that?

Mrs. Bottomley : Indeed. I chair the unleaded petrol group which works with members of the motor, petrol and

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oil industries and various Government Departments. We have been at great pains to ensure that proper and reliable information is available throughout the country. Of course, the information provided by the dealer or the garage mechanic is vital. I have even attended a training day for garage owners to encourage them to give the proper information to their customers.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop : I congratulate the Government on carrying out the recommendation of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry for a 10p per gallon gap--the largest anywhere in the EEC--in the taxation of unleaded and leaded fuel. Will my hon. Friend confirm that it is just as important to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions from power stations by having a balanced element of nuclear power as to control the amount of lead going into the atmosphere from petrol, which is also very important?

Mrs. Bottomley : I thank my hon. Friend for his comments about the substantial differential, which I believe is the second highest in the European Community. It has made a significant difference to the uptake of unleaded petrol. He is right, of course, to identify the whole question of carbon dioxide. At the Council of Environment Ministers the Minister for Housing, Environment and Countryside, my hon. and noble Friend the Earl of Caithness, will be pressing the Commission to bring forward measures to tackle greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles, which is a matter of great concern to us all.

Mr. Allan Roberts : The Minister has just made a most significant announcement, which should have been in the form of a formal statement. After a virulent, sustained and misinformed campaign by the Government against the catalytic converter and the adoption of stricter United States standards for vehicle emissions in Europe, have the Government not just done a U-turn by accepting the EEC directive on stricter vehicle emissions? Will the Minister confirm that although this will mean that all new cars will have to run on lead-free petrol and have a three-way catalytic converter the Minister's statement makes it clear that the Government are still trying to delay the implementation of those new standards from 1991 to 1993 and intend to move an amendment along those lines at the Council of Ministers meeting on 8 June? If that amendment is not carried, will the Government still try to hold up implementation of the directive?

Mrs. Bottomley : I apologise for having taken the wind out of the hon. Gentleman's sails and for disappointing him with my announcement today. For a long time the Government have believed that three-way catalytic converters and oxidation catalysts would have an important part to play in controlling pollution. That is one of the reasons why we have been so determined to extend the distribution and availability of unleaded petrol.

There is concern about the accumulation of carbon dioxide and the greenhouse effect. We believe that the right way to protect the environment is on the basis of hard science, not hot heads. We are seeking an agreement and it is time that the motor industry and the consumer knew the way forward. We shall welcome the Commission's proposals on the basis of the few conditions that I have made clear. We hope that we shall be able to encourage

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others to follow our example in taking sufficiently seriously the problems of the greenhouse effect and climate change.

River Polluters

2. Mr. Robert G. Hughes : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment at what date members of the public were given the right to prosecute polluters of rivers.

The Minister for Water and Planning (Mr. Michael Howard) : Members of the public were given the right to prosecute polluters of rivers by sections 31 and 32 of the Control of Pollution Act 1974 which were brought into force by the present Government on 31 January 1985.

Mr. Hughes : Will my hon. and learned Friend confirm that all the extra measures contained in the Water Bill will be implemented fully by the Government whereas the measures brought in by the Labour Government were never implemented? When we combine that fact with Labour's total opposition to the Water Bill, it is difficult to see the Labour party as the friend of people who want clean water. Labour is on the side of the polluters.

Mr. Howard : I can indeed confirm that the rights of private prosecution will continue under the Water Bill, which is designed to achieve substantial improvements in our water environment and will help to correct the mischief from which we are still suffering as a consequence of the lack of investment in the industry under the Labour Government.

Ms. Primarolo : In view of the Minister's reply to the main question, may I ask what steps the Government intend to take against the South West water authority, which has now polluted rivers for the third time, this time with aluminium sulphate?

Mr. Howard : The incident to which the hon. Lady refers is certainly regrettable, but it did not affect the quality of drinking water in any way. The South West water authority has substantially reviewed its procedures since the Camelford incident and is reviewing the incident to which the hon. Lady refers.

Mr. Key : Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that hon. Members on both sides of the House and Members in the other place who care deeply about the purity of our river systems should not be hoodwinked into believing that there is a simple answer to pollution? While it is clear that sometimes the worst polluters are the water authorities themselves, the ecological balance of our river systems is extremely delicate and a great deal more research needs to be carried out by bodies such as the National Environmental Research Council and the Freshwater Biological Association.

Mr. Howard : My hon. Friend is quite right. However, the National Rivers Authority will have a crucial role to play in ensuring that we have the highest possible river standards in this country. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be pleased to know that 95 per cent. of the rivers in the United Kingdom fall into grades 1 and 2--the highest proportion in any member state of the European Community.

Mr. Matthew Taylor : Does the Minister accept that the pollution incidents in the South West water authority area

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--there have been three within 10 months-- are serious public problems and not private ones? Will he initiate a proper independent inquiry to discover why South West Water has mishandled things in such a way as to allow aluminium pollution to occur three times in succession? Will he do something to ensure that the privatisation of South West Water does not go ahead until that proper independent inquiry has taken place?

Mr. Howard : I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that those three incidents are an advertisement for public sector control of the water industry. The latest incidents need to be seen in perspective. Neither of the two more recent incidents affected the drinking water supply, but a thorough investigation of both is being conducted by the authority.

Mr. Harris : I accept what my hon. and learned Friend has to say about South West Water but how many times have water authorities prosecuted themselves for the pollution of rivers or water supplies? I appreciate that he may not be able to answer that, but does he not agree that one of the great benefits of the Water Bill is that the prosecution role will be taken away from the water authorities and given to the National Rivers Authority?

Mr. Howard : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is most unsatisfactory that under the present system water authorities combine the roles of gamekeeper and poacher. We are moving away from that. The National Rivers Authority will be responsible for prosecuting under the new system which is being put into place and which I expect to bring a substantial improvement in standards.

Playing Fields (Sales)

3. Mr. Radice : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what proposals he has to protect playing fields from being sold for purposes other than sport and recreation.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for the Environment (Mr. Christopher Chope) : We have urged local authorities to take into account the needs of the wider community and to consult local sports and recreational interests before allowing recreational land to be developed, but these must be matters for local authorities themselves to decide.

Mr. Radice : Is the Minister aware that according to the National Playing Fields Association 800 sites, or 100,000 acres of sports facilities, have been lost for ever as a direct consequence of Government policy? Will the Government therefore withdraw circular 909 and prevent even more of our playing fields from being taken over by property developers?

Mr. Chope : The fault does not lie with the Government but, often, with Socialist local authorities. The hon. Gentleman may not be aware that yesterday the Socialist ILEA decided, over the heads of the London Playing Fields Society, to sell 20 acres of playing fields in south London. That proposal was hotly contested by the Conservatives, but sadly the Socialists had a majority.

Mr. Tracey : Is my hon. Friend aware that a few months ago Mr. Neil Fletcher, the leader of the Socialist-controlled Inner London education authority said that he would take all steps to prevent property developers from buying ILEA sports grounds and building houses on

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them? Yesterday ILEA agreed to sell 20 acres of unencumbered sports ground. Does my hon. Friend realise the consequences of that precedent, given that ILEA has more than 200 acres of satellite sports grounds? Will he give the House an undertaking to call in any planning applications to build houses on those sports grounds?

Mr. Chope : Any planning applications that are made would have to be referred to the local planning authority, which would consider whether the local plan was such as to give a clear indication as to what should be done with those playing fields. My hon. Friend is right to draw the attention of the House to what happened with ILEA. Fortunately, ILEA is soon to be abolished and will thus be unable to pursue any more of this Socialist humbug.

Mr. Menzies Campbell : Does not the Minister accept that this is a national matter and, therefore, a matter for Ministers? Is there not a responsibility to ensure playing fields facilities for generations of sportsmen yet to come? Does he think that his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State would be so supine if someone wanted to flog off the playing fields of Eton?

Mr. Chope : The fact that we should have more recreational facilities is a national matter. I am pleased to say that as a result of the Government's policies more people are participating in recreation than ever before. That is a sign that we have achieved a good balanced policy at national level. We shall be updating the planning policy guidance on this and hope to issue a new document before the end of the year.

Mr. Denis Howell : Is the Minister aware that most of ILEA's playing fields are in the outer London boroughs, which are not controlled by Socialist authorities? Will he therefore stop this nonsense and join me today in saying that it is absolutely essential for the future of community sport and school sport, on which all British sport depends, to stop selling off sports fields in any local authority whatever its political complexion? [ Hon. Members :-- "What about Labour ILEA?"] Labour ILEA has playing fields in Conservative areas, where the authorities will not purchase them-- [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker : Order.

Mr. Howell : It is all right, Mr. Speaker ; they think they are on the terraces.

Finally, I draw the Minister's attention to the fact that in 1984 the now Minister for Sport--he is not present today--promoted a Sports Fields and Recreational Facilities Bill requiring the Government to monitor the sale of sports fields carefully and to take appropriate action. Why has he surrendered that proposal since taking office?

Mr. Chope : I hope that Socialist authorities up and down the country will heed some of the right hon. Gentleman's advice.

Mr. Hayward : Does my hon. Friend believe that any of the contributors from the Opposition have read his reply to the Adjournment debate on Monday night, particularly the reference to the sale of a sports ground in my constituency by the Co-operative Wholesale Society?

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Mr. Chope : That comment is a further indication that the Opposition are clutching at straws. They do not have a consistent policy like ours ; the sooner they develop one, the better.

Unauthorised Development

4. Mr. Redmond : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he has any intention to strengthen the powers of planning authorities to deal with unauthorised development ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Howard : Yes, Sir. My right hon. Friend invited comments by 31 May on Mr. Robert Carnwath's report on this subject entitled "Enforcing Planning Control". When the response has been considered my right hon. Friend will seek an early legislative opportunity to strengthen the enforcement regime at present contained in the Town and Country Planning Act 1971.

Mr. Redmond : I am grateful for the Minister's reply, but will he tell us whether the Government intend to adopt the recommendations in the Carnwath report? If so, what are his views on the 10-year immunity for unauthorised use?

Mr. Howard : I do not think that the hon. Gentleman really expects me this afternoon to pre-empt the entire consultation exercise on which we are engaged. The Government take consultation seriously, and I want to study carefully the views expressed in response to the consultation before I make up my mind about any of the proposals.

Mr. Andrew MacKay : I welcome my hon. and learned Friend's announcement that there will be legislation, but he will be aware from representations that he has received from many local authorities, including my own, that they consider their present statutory position quite inadequate. There is now insufficient provision to deter a developer who wishes to break all the rules. Can my hon. and learned Friend give a guarantee that that deterrent will be there in the future?

Mr. Howard : I agree that the enforcement powers now available to local authorities are inadequate. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State asked Mr. Robert Carnwath to report on the matter, and why we are consulting on the report and hope to proceed to action.

Mr. O'Brien : Can the Minister give us any idea of the timetable for the introduction of legislation, and when the consultation process will end? In the past 10 years of Tory rule, little has been done to prevent the abuse of planning laws. The appeal procedure is a costly and lengthy one for local authorities, and they must also suffer uncertainty about the outcome. It is therefore important that action be taken as soon as possible. Will the Minister also take on board the issue of third parties who may be aggrieved? Will they receive protection so that they can make representations in the event of abuse of planning laws?

Mr. Howard : There will certainly be opportunities for all interested parties to make representations. As I said in my original answer, my right hon. Friend will wish to legislate on the matter at the earliest opportunity.

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Peak Park Planning Board

5. Mr. Knox : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he has any plans to introduce direct elections to the Peak park planning board.

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Nicholas Ridley) : I have no plans to do so.

Mr. Knox : How does my right hon. Friend justify the fact that the Peak park is one of only two areas in the country where planning decisions are made by people who are not directly elected? Does he regard that as fair to those who live there?

Mr. Ridley : I know and acknowledge my hon. Friend's strong feelings and persistence on that point, but he will appreciate that if any change is made it will be necessary also to alter the arrangements for electing national park planning authorities--all of them, not just one or two. In Northumberland, only 2,500 people live in the national park, so such a solution would not be appropriate.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett : Does the Secretary of State recall that when greater Manchester council was abolished the place for its elected representatives on the Peak planning authority was abolished? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that large numbers of people in greater Manchester enjoy visiting the Peak district for recreation and feel that they ought to have more say in the way in which its planning authority operates? They are particularly concerned that existing guaranteed access to water authority land should be retained and that the Peak park planning authority will not have to pay more for that access.

Mr. Ridley : Yes, and I am equally certain that many people living in the countryside would like more say in the way in which Manchester city council runs its affairs.

Mr. David Nicholson : Is my right hon. Friend aware that those of us who represent constituencies in which national parks are situated appreciate the consultations that his Department holds with right hon. and hon. Members on the selection of the people who are to serve on planning authorities? Does he agree that voluntary organisations and societies representing people who love the countryside have an important role to play? Is he aware that last weekend the Exmoor Society, which started with a victory over a proposal to plant conifers on a large part of Exmoor, celebrated its 30th anniversary? Will my right hon. Friend encourage the work of such voluntary societies?

Mr. Ridley : I shall certainly do so, and I join my hon. Friend in celebrating the anniversary to which he referred. I hope that he feels that our decision to restrict grants for coniferous plantations on the uplands of England makes a contribution of comparable value.

Mr. Harry Barnes : Does the Secretary of State agree that one problem arising in direct elections is the size of constituency which should be involved? My constituents make regular use of the Peak park and should therefore be included in any extended franchise. If that happens, they should also have some control over what happens in the Peak park area. Water privatisation is interfering with

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rights of access there. Does the Minister agree that those elected under any transformed electoral system should be able to influence that?

Mr. Ridley : I agree with the hon. Gentleman that 12 different local authorities have part of their areas within the Peak district national park, but I entirely disagree with his comments about the Water Bill, to which the democratically elected Government and Parliament have given a fair wind because they believe it to be the right measure. The hon. Gentleman may be unaware that the Bill provides full safeguards for access to hitherto accessible water authority land.

Mortgage Repossessions

6. Ms. Primarolo : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will give the latest figures for homelessness arising from mortgage repossessions in the south-east and south-west of England.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. David Trippier) : Estimates from local authority returns for the fourth quarter of 1988 are that about 300 households in London and the south-east, and about 100 in the south-west, were accepted by local councils as homeless as a result of mortgage repossessions.

Ms. Primarolo : Does the Minister accept that as a result of the Government's continuing disastrous economics policies, which brought yet another rise in interest rates today, the problem of mortgage repossessions is becoming even more serious? Is it not true that the figures that he gave do not take into account repossessions by banks and finance houses, and that the true proportion of homeless people in the priority need group presenting themselves to local authorities is one in 10? Is the Minister aware that the situation is deteriorating rapidly, and what action does he intend to take to solve this disastrous problem in the housing market?

Mr. Trippier : I can only describe the hon. Lady's figures as nonsense. The figures that I have already given in the substantive answer do not help the case that she is seeking to advance. The truth is that, according to the latest statistics, there has been a decline in the number of mortgage repossessions in the past two years. On the very point that the hon. Lady made about the economy, the director general of the Building Societies Association recently said : "The decline in the number of repossessions and arrears is consistent with the improvement in performance of the economy in recent years and the sharp fall in unemployment"


"the middle of 1986."

Mr. Heddle : Does my hon. Friend agree that the best advice that he can give those who find themselves in difficulties with their mortgages is not to wait until the 59th minute of the 11th hour with the bailiffs knocking at the door, but to go to the building society office that they deal with, put the problem to them and reschedule the borrowing? Does he further agree that in such cases there may be a case for building societies and other reputable lending institutions to take properties back and relet them to the former owners to prevent pressure on housing waiting lists?

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Mr. Trippier : I agree with my hon. Friend's earlier point. That is sound advice. Experience has shown that in those circumstances building societies are, in the vast majority of cases, sympathetic, and that has contributed to the fairly dramatic fall that we have seen in the figures that I have already given to the House.

Mr. Soley : The Minister's figures are misleading because they apply only to building societies, as the societies make clear. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Ms. Primarolo) is right. The fastest growing area of homelessness for families is mortgage repossessions from all mortgage companies and the local authorities are having to pick up the bill. Why does not the Minister put that right? Does he remember the Tory party's promise in 1979 given by his ex-housing spokesman, supported by the Prime Minister in 1980, that mortgage rates would not rise above 9.5 per cent. under the Tory Government? Except on two brief occasions they have never been under 10 per cent. in the past 10 years.

Mr. Trippier : The hon. Gentleman knows why we have to have this temporary period of high interest rates. Several undertakings have been given by my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer on that front. The main purpose is to reduce inflation--a lesson that was never learnt by the Labour party in office when its record was disastrous. We have not got anywhere near the 27 per cent. that inflation reached then.

I question where the hon. Gentleman gets his figures for his earlier point. We have to give the figures that are available from a number of sources. They have to be correct and subject to parliamentary reply. The hon. Gentleman's figures are pure hypothesis.

Mr. Squire : Does my hon. Friend agree that, given that all the published statistics show that homelessness through mortgage arrears is a small proportion of those facing homelessness, the only purpose of the campaign being waged by the Opposition must be to alarm many people who have fallen into mortgage arrears and possibly to deter those who would otherwise buy their homes?

Mr. Trippier : I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. I genuinely believe that the campaign to which he referred which has been waged this week will not do a single thing to solve the problem--not a single thing. To put the matter in perspective, although it is distressing to the people involved--I emphasise again that no individual or political party has a monopoly on compassion--the latest figures show that less than one third of 1 per cent. of mortgage advances result in possession of the property by the lender.

County Hall, London

7. Mr. Tony Banks : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what information he has regarding the future use of the county hall, London SE1.

Mr. Ridley : The future use of county hall is in part the subject of an appeal to the Court of Appeal against a High Court decision made in March 1988 and in part the subject of planning appeals recently submitted to me. Arrangements are in hand for the holding of a public inquiry. I cannot comment on the proposals.

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Mr. Banks : Is not the conversion of county hall into a luxury hotel a studied insult to the homeless of London and to Londoners generally? Would not the Secretary of State do well to advise the sleazebags who are coming up with this particular proposal that a Labour Government will take county hall back into public ownership by compulsory purchase and they will lose an awful lot of money unless they back off now?

Mr. Ridley : I cannot comment on the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question, but I can assure him that the hypothesis contained in the second part certainly will not come true.

Mr. Gow : In what ways would the progress of mankind be impeded if further municipal headquarters, notably those owned and occupied by Socialist authorities, were sold to the private sector?

Mr. Ridley : I confess that I am stumped by my hon. Friend's question.

Bad Landlords

8. Mr. Meale : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what proposals he has to counter the activities of bad landlords in the private rented sector.

Mr. Ridley : The Government significantly strengthened the law against harassment in the Housing Act 1988.

Mr. Meale : As there will certainly be a future Labour Government, has the right hon. Gentleman noted the Labour party's commitment to tenants in private sector accommodation to provide additional protection by offering them the opportunity to opt for decent landlords in non-resident properties? Is the right hon. Gentleman prepared immediately to offer that to tenants in the private sector?

Mr. Ridley : The hon. Gentleman is too early in that he predicts something that will not happen, yet too late in that we have already taken legislative steps to improve the law against harassment. The offence of

"Harassing a tenant knowing or having reasonable cause to believe that this was likely to cause him to leave his home"

is an improvement on previous law.

The hon. Gentleman probably is not aware that there is a new right to civil damages effective from 9 June based on the landlord's profit from illegal eviction. In a case brought by the Hammersmith and Fulham tenancy relations department a landlord was put in prison for 28 days under the new legislation. I can hardly think that the hon. Gentleman is dissatisfied with that.

Sir Geoffrey Finsberg : As the other half of the coin of private landlords is public landlords, is my right hon. Friend satisfied that enough is being done to deal with bad public landlords such as Camden council and others?

Mr. Ridley : I agree with my hon. Friend, who knows that we are continuing to take measures both to get publicly owned stock properly and fully used and to improve the standard of management of some local authorities, which leaves a lot to be desired.

Mr. Soley : Why is it that the tenant of a Mr. Rachman or a Mr. Hoogstraten cannot have the right to change his landlord?

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Mr. Ridley : The hon. Gentleman knows full well that the public sector is not in competition with the private sector in many areas, and that shows very much in local authorities' service to their tenants.

Mr. Leigh : Does not the history of well-intentioned efforts by Government since the first world war to regulate the private rented sector prove beyond peradventure two economic facts of life--that shortages raise prices and that Governments create shortages?

Mr. Ridley : My hon. Friend is right. The effect of the Rent Acts since the end of the first world war has deprived large numbers of people of the opportunity to have the sort of accommodation that they wanted. One of the great achievements of this Government is that that restriction on supply has been ended, at least for new tenants.

Recycled Paper

9. Mr. Malcolm Bruce : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what percentage of paper used in Government offices is recycled paper.

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