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House of Commons

Wednesday 13 December 1989

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions


City Grant, Birmingham

1. Mr. Bevan : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what has been the total amount of city grant money awarded to programmes in Birmingham in the current financial year.

The Minister for Local Government and Inner Cities (Mr. David Hunt) : Five city grants totalling almost £10 million have been awarded toprogrammes in Birmingham, including one of £3.2 million to support a major commercial and leisure development known as the Arcadian centre, which I have approved today.

Mr. Bevan : Can my hon. Friend confirm that the grant for the Waterlinks development in Birmingham is worth more than £6 million and is the second biggest city grant approved so far? Is that not convincing evidence of the Government's commitment to Birmingham's needs? Can thought now be given to a grant-aided scheme for the restoration of the Grand Union canal in Yardley, Birmingham and the areas around it?

Mr. Hunt : I congratulate my hon. Friend and other hon. Friends on having so skilfully and effectively lobbied on Birmingham's behalf, in particular on city grant programmes. The answers to his questions are yes, and yes. The major Waterlinks development is the second biggest scheme approved so far and is equivalent in value to 10 per cent. of the annual approvals programme. I congratulate Birmingham on the exciting and imaginative schemes that it has submitted and I look forward to examining further schemes in due course.

Mr. O'Brien : How much of the city grant, to Birmingham in particular and throughout the country in general, goes to housing for rent? According to the terms of reference, houses for rent should be provided by those who receive city grants. When will the same amount be spent on providing houses for rent as is being spent on commercial undertakings in Birmingham? Does he agree that assistance should be given to provide houses for rent throughout the country.

Mr. Hunt : The purpose of our inner city policies is to provide inner city people with job opportunities, to match their skills to the jobs available, to provide retraining, better homes, better community facilities and a better environment in which to live and work. We have increased

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the amount spent on city grants from £29 million in 1987-88 to £67 million in 1988-89 and we intend to maintain that rate of increase in future years.

Mr. Beaumont-Dark : Does my hon. Friend accept that we are mindful of the fact that the Government have been generous towards Birmingham? They understand that Birmingham needs a lot of money for the changes that need to take place. Will he encourage his ministerial colleagues to ensure that the spine road to the Birmingham heartlands, which will set it on the road to growth, goes ahead so that Birmingham can be given a real chance to provide something of great worth to its people?

Mr. Hunt : I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Four large projects in Birmingham are under appraisal, including one in the heartlands area. My Department and I look forward to working with heartlands. We shall continue to support worthwhile city grant schemes. However, because of the complexity of the problems in heartlands, schemes may take longer than usual to appraise. Nevertheless, I shall do my best to speed up their consideration. I completely agree with my hon. Friend that important infrastructure improvements are vital to inner city regeneration.

European Community Ministers

2. Ms. Quin : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment when he next plans to meet his EEC counterparts ; and what matters will be discussed.

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Chris Patten) : I met my European Community counterparts as recently as Tuesday 28 November at the Environment Council in Brussels, following which on 30 November I gave a report of the meeting to the House in answer to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Mr. Bright).

I intend meeting my European Community counterparts again at the next Environment Council on 22 March. The Republic of Ireland takes over the presidency of the European Community on 1 January 1990, and it will be for the presidency to determine the Council agenda.

Ms. Quin : Has the Secretary of State discussed with his European counterparts the speeding up of Britain's full compliance with EC water quality directives? Does he agree that instead of the taxpayer having to fork out more than £3 billion for privatisation, the money would have been better spent complying with those directives earlier? If we are supposed to enter the single European market in 1992, why do we have to wait until 1995 at the earliest for better quality standards?

Mr. Patten : I am sure that the hon. Lady will be delighted to know that we have the most comprehensive, fully funded and obviously committed programme of investment in raising our water quality standards so that they will be in full compliance with EC directives and, perhaps even more to the point, so that we can meet all our standards, some of which are higher than those set by the European Commission. In the other parts of the question, the hon. Lady seemed to be muddling together a number of facts, but I am sure that she will be as delighted as the rest of the House at the extremely successful flotation of the water industry and at the large number of new shareholders in the water industry.

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Mr. Hunter : In dealings with his European counterparts, will my right hon. Friend ensure that there is no wasteful overlap between the activities of the European environmental statistics office, the European environmental CORINE programme, the European environmental agency and the European environmental monitoring and information system? It all sounds rather excessive, as though it involved creating or adding to the bureaucrats' paradise.

Mr. Patten : We are all against other bureaucrats' paradises, although we may be in favour of our own. I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of avoiding overlap. I believe that the establishment of a European environment agency, for which we pressed so strongly at the last Council meeting, will help to establish a common basis for information and debate on European environmental issues. I believe that Britain would come out of such debate pretty well.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce : When the Secretary of State next meets his colleagues in Europe, will he ask them how France and Germany are managing to secure reductions in carbon dioxide emissions, while in the United Kingdom they increased by 2.6 per cent? In view of his comments outside the House, does he believe that more intelligent public transport policies and energy conservation measures have contributed to those reductions, and will he be recommending that we take similar action?

Mr. Patten : I am delighted to follow the hon. Gentleman's last point. Since the substantial increase in investment in public transport announced in the Autumn Statement, I believe that we are now looking forward to the largest investment in British Rail since the move from steam to diesel, and we should all welcome that. Carbon dioxide emissions will be a major issue on the international agenda in the next few years. It is extremely complicated, and I am surprised that the Opposition have found it so simple to resolve, but I am sure that the rest of us will continue to do what we can to stop global warming and prevent climate change.

Mr. Heddle : Does my right hon. Friend recall that despite vigorous opposition from the British Government, the EC imposed VAT on non-domestic construction work in the United Kingdom? If the matter comes before his EC counterparts now or in the immediate future, will he give them notice that in no circumstances do the British Government want VAT to be imposed on domestic construction work in the United Kingdom which would increase house price inflation?

Mr. Patten : I well understand my hon. Friend's concern and the argument that he has put so vigorously. Were the issue to come to the Environment Council, my first reaction would be to tell my distinguished colleagues that it should be discussed not by the Environment Council but by other Councils in the Community. I assure my hon. Friend that I would want the closest consultation with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer about any such proposal.

Community Charge

3. Mr. Campbell-Savours : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what representations he has received in the last month on the community charge.

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Mr. David Hunt : I have received about 150 representations from local authorities and others on transitional relief. I continue to receive many representations on the community charge.

Mr. Campbell-Savours : Do not the Government accept by now that the poll tax is utterly and totally discredited in the minds of people throughout the country? Can he not see that the people who gain are those who live in large, expensive properties and those who lose are those who live in small, inexpensive properties? In so far as the poll tax is now discredited because it is grossly unjust, is it not time that the Government withdrew the legislation and set about re-evaluating the rating system once again?

Mr. Hunt : No, no and no. Things are on course for the successful introduction of the community charge on1 April next year. As for the position of the hon. Gentleman and his party, what is discredited is the present rating system, which all major parties now agree should be abolished. We believe that we have a fair and simple alternative. The hon. Gentleman should not pontificate on these matters until he and his colleagues have decided whether they wish to pursue their plans for twin- tax torture for the British people or whether they have some other alternative to bring forward.

Mr. Fishburn : Can my hon. Friend tell the House at this stage what proportion of the British public have registered for the community charge?

Mr. Hunt : I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that I am able to publish today the community charge population figures for England. They show that the proportion of the Government's estimate of people liable to the charge who have been registered is 99.95 per cent. on average throughout the country.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett : Is the Minister aware of the strong feeling in Tameside about the way in which the poll tax formulae have been applied? He will be aware of the representations that were made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) and myself to the Department, and of the puzzlement of people in Tameside as to why Tameside appears to have done so badly under the formulae compared with other towns such as Rochdale and Oldham, which are within the same area of Greater Manchester. I hope that the Minister will look seriously at the particular problems of Tameside and the way in which this treatment has been particularly unfair to that authority.

Mr. Hunt : We do not regard as unfair the fact that we have increased the total spending for local authorities next year by 11 per cent. above the current figure and the amount of external finance by 8.5 per cent. Obviously, we are now in a consultation process and I would not want to comment further, except to say how delighted I am that in Tameside more than 100 per cent. of people-- [Interruption.] --have now registered.

Mr. Brandon-Bravo : So that local authorities can levy a community charge which is fair and is seen to be fair, has my hon. Friend had representations from local authorities worried about the treatment of reserves and balances which, as he knows, distort the perceived spending and

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perceived needs of each authority, making it difficult for my hon. Friend to assess a reasonable and sensible support grant?

Mr. Hunt : I agree with my hon. Friend. The use of balances has always distorted the picture for local authorities. To compare like with like, we have endeavoured to leave the use of balances out of our calculations. Their use can create the kind of problems to which my hon. Friend refers.

Mr. Blunkett : In view of the obvious dismay on the Conservative Back Benches at the fact that the £1 billion bribe offered to the electorate to soften the political impact of the poll tax is clearly not working, will the Minister tell the House whether there are any further plans for financial changes between now and 1 April, whether he understands the existing administrative chaos and whether he understands and appreciates the fact that, whatever the Government do to try to bribe the electorate and to provide what are becoming known as sweeteners, the poll tax will show its full implications when people vote in the local elections in May and display their disgust at and distrust of the Government's proposals to use their money to try to persuade them that the tax that they do not want is acceptable?

Mr. Hunt : When the hon. Gentleman refers to administrative chaos, he can hardly be referring to the excellent work of community charge registration officers throughout the country in achieving a national average of 99.95 per cent. I greatly regret the fact that many local Labour parties have been associated with non-registration campaigns--which have been singularly unsuccessful. On implementation, we believe that the transitional relief scheme is generous and important in trying to overcome the problems in certain parts of the country. However, the certainty that is now present in the system will continue until 1 April, although we have not yet announced the results of our consultations on the amount of rate support grant and external finance.

Mr. Ward : Will my hon. Friend undertake to consider carefully all the representations that have been made to him recently about the community charge and especially those that were made by representatives of the borough of Poole to the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Chope) last Monday, when they demonstrated clearly that they had been treated unfairly in comparison with neighbouring areas? There must be other areas like this, so can my hon. Friend guarantee that they will all be considered carefully?

Mr. Hunt : In paying tribute to my hon. Friend for the robust representations that he has made on behalf of his area, I confirm that all the points that he and the delegation that he headed made will be considered carefully.

Mr. Campbell-Savours : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the wholly unsatisfactory nature of that reply and the fact that the Minister has refused to respond properly, I propose--

Mr. Speaker : Order. All that is necessary is to announce that a matter will be raised on the Adjournment. The hon. Gentleman need not go into the arguments now.

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War Memorial, County Hall

4. Mr. Tony Banks : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will take steps to ensure that the war memorial and inscripted marble in county hall, London SE1 will be safeguarded in the event of redevelopment.

Mr. Chris Patten : I understand that, as part of their proposals for the development of county hall, the London residuary body and the County Hall Development Group are prepared to provide for the restoration of the memorial and inscripted marble.

Mr. Banks : I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that reply. Is he aware that the great majority of Londoners still find it most offensive that county hall, which was built with ratepayers' money to be the headquarters of the old London county council and then of the Greater London council, should be turned into something as wholly inappropriate as a luxury hotel? Will the Secretary of State take a message from this House to the spivs who propose to build a luxury hotel that the place will be taken back by the people of London for the government of London and that the Opposition will ensure that that happens?

Mr. Patten : My impression has been that most Londoners are able to contain their misery and despair at the abolition of the GLC within the bounds of public decorum. The capital receipts from the sale of county hall will, in due course, be used for the benefit of Londoners--would that all the money which flowed through county hall in the past had also been used to the benefit of Londoners.

Mr. Hanley : Talking of war memorials, may I thank my right hon. Friend, his Department and the Property Services Agency for at long last illuminating the cenotaph in Whitehall? It is now a site of remembrance worthy of those who died for all of us and one of the most attractive monuments in London.

Mr. Patten : I note what my hon. Friend has said, and I agree with him about the importance of what has been done and about the attractiveness of the result.

Miss Hoey : Will the Secretary of State tell the people of Waterloo what direct benefits their community will derive from the conversion of county hall into a luxury hotel, and especially what the benefits will be for people sleeping in the nearby bull ring?

Mr. Patten : As the hon. Lady knows, one proposal for the development of county hall is before an inspector at the moment and another is before the courts, so it would be injudicious for me to be drawn into too much detail in responding to her question. I am sure that one result of the development of county hall which would benefit the hon. Lady's constituents would be the creation of more jobs.

Mr. Robert G. Hughes : Does my right hon. Friend accept that many people will be glad to hear that the war memorial is to be preserved and properly presented for the benefit of the people of London? Does he also accept that, whatever one thinks about the structure of local government in London, county hall will not be needed again by any body that is established? Will my right hon. Friend take care about answering questions from the hon.

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Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) because when the hon. Gentleman sees valuable things lying around county hall they tend to end up lying in his loft?

Mr. Patten : There are many places that I would like to visit, but I have never included the hon. Gentleman's loft among them. I accept what my hon. Friend said about the government of London. I also agree that it is important to protect the interior of county hall and, whatever our disagreements, that is a point on which the hon. Member for Newham, North- West (Mr. Banks) and I agree.

Mr. Allan Roberts : Is the Secretary of State aware that if the Government allow the demolition of any part of county hall it will be seen as an act of vandalism motivated by political spite, and as an attempt by the Government to prevent the next Labour Government from re-establishing Londonwide regional government based at county hall? We shall not be deterred. County hall is as much a part of our heritage--[ Hon. Members :-- "Ask a question."] I am asking a question.

Hon. Members : What is it then?

Mr. Speaker : Order. Mr. Allan Roberts.

Mr. Roberts : Is the Minister aware that county hall is as much a part of our heritage and of the Thames skyline as the Houses of Parliament? It is not surprising, however, that the Government refuse to intervene to protect the former workplace of Ken Livingstone, given that they refuse to intervene to protect the former workplace of William Shakespeare.

Mr. Patten : The hon. Gentleman is right that the building in question is part of our heritage, but I have never regarded the GLC as part of that heritage.

Nature Conservancy Council

5. Dr. Thomas : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment when he last met the chairperson of the Nature Conservancy Council ; and what was discussed.

Mr. Chris Patten : My colleagues and I regularly meet the chairman of the Nature Conservancy Council. The most recent meeting was on 23 November, when my hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and Countryside met Sir William Wilkinson to discuss proposals connected with the forthcoming reorganisation of the council.

Dr. Thomas : Will the Secretary of State, who will shortly be addressing an important conference to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the national parks, accept that the transfer of responsibility and the decentralisation of the scientific base to Wales is generally acceptable in Wales and that the combination of the powers with those of the Countryside Commission will provide a new body able to promote conservation and encourage access, within limits, to the Welsh countryside? Will he now state that it is the Government's intention to organise a joint statutory committee to ensure that Great Britain-wide and United Kingdom-wide issues are dealt with in the reorganisation?

Mr. Patten : I agree with the first part of the hon. Gentleman's remarks. We intend to establish a joint statutory committee. People in Wales, as in England and

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Scotland, wish, as we do, to ensure that scientific matters which should be taken on a Great Britain basis are taken on such a basis.

Mr. Boswell : Does my right hon. Friend agree that both within and outside the Nature Conservancy Council and its advisory bodies, many more people support his restructuring proposals than have raised their voices against them?

Mr. Patten : I agree with my hon. Friend, and one of those who have supported our proposals is the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. Gould : Has not the proposed dismemberment of the Nature Conservancy Council met with almost universal hostility on the part of all those directly concerned with conservation? There is still time to withdraw the proposals and I urge the Secretary of State to do precisely that. Does he not accept that his proposed palliative of some form of joint committee has also been decisively rejected as an inadequate piece of sticking plaster for a wound that should never have been opened? Would it not be better if he stayed his hand from surgery altogether?

Mr. Patten : I repeat that the Leader of the Opposition is among those people who have not condemned the proposals. I have in front of me, as barristers are able to say, a letter from the office of the Leader of the Opposition which says :

"Mr. Kinnock welcomes the proposal to establish a countryside council for Wales."

If the Leader of the Opposition welcomes the proposals for Wales, I do not see how he cannot welcome them for the rest of the country. Perhaps Labour party policy varies from one part of the country to another.

I share the hon. Gentleman's determination to ensure that we safeguard the science base of the Nature Conservancy Council's work. I share the Leader of the Opposition's determination to ensure that there is a profile for nature conservancy work in Great Britain. Our arrangements on the machinery allow for that. We are not talking about changing conservation policy, but changing the machinery, and that is justified. The only real difference between us and the Nature Conservancy Council now is whether or not there should be an independent chairman of the joint statutory committee.

Sir Hector Monro : Does my right hon. Friend agree that, despite what the governing bodies may have said or written to newspapers, the majority of Nature Conservancy councillors are firmly in favour of the changes, and the individual countries are particularly pleased because they look forward to a more practical involvement in nature conservation, with a stronger scientific base?

Mr. Patten : I note what my hon. Friend says. He has made a distinguished contribution to the work of the Nature Conservancy Council. I am sure that the majority to which he referred will be delighted at the confirmation that I have been able to give this afternoon and they will be delighted that the Leader of the Opposition agrees with them.

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Water Charges

6. Mr. Michael : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment how he intends that the level of payment to be made for water and associated charges in respect of domestic hereditaments will be determined in future ; and from what date any change of system shall take effect.

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Mr. Michael Howard) : It is for each water service company to decide how to charge domestic customers for its services, subject to the limits placed on each company's charges by the Secretary of State and the director general, and the other conditions of their appointment. The use of rateable values as a basis of water charges will not be permitted beyond the year 2000.

Mr. Michael : Will the Minister therefore confirm three principles to the House now--first, that compulsory metering will not be introduced ; secondly, that the new system, whatever it is, will have to relate the charge to the ability to pay ; and thirdly, that nothing will be introduced that could be regarded as any sort of water poll tax?

Mr. Howard : There are provisions in the licence of appointment against any kind of unfair discrimination against different categories of customer. That is more than sufficient protection for water consumers.

Mr. Paice : Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that metering means that people will pay more for the water they use and that a household containing a bigger family will pay more than a household containing one person, and, what is more important, the more water that they use, the more they will pollute, and that will conform to our policy that the polluter pays?

Mr. Howard : There is a great deal in what my hon. Friend says. Metering is used almost universally in other countries, but will not necessarily be adopted by the water service companies. It is for them to choose the most appropriate method of charging.

Mr. Beith : What will the Minister do about the impact of charges upon the customers of long-established private water companies, such as the Newcastle and Gateshead water company? Customers of those companies have already faced increases of more than 18 per cent., which is partly due to the demands of privatisation legislation. They will face greater increases, because those companies do not get the green dowry that is being given to the newly privatised companies.

Mr. Howard : We are engaged in discussions with those companies to decide the appropriate level for the limit on charges during the next 10 years, and those discussions are continuing.

Mr. Dover : Is the Minister able to confirm whether arrangements have been made for housing developers, with regard to the charges that they have to pay for the provision of water services to housing developments?

Mr. Howard : Infrastructure payments have to be made under the legislation by developers so that the costs that their developments impose on the water infrastructure are fully met.

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8. Mr. Cran : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what estimate he has as to the number of tonnes of litter left on British streets every day ; what was the average figure for 1988 ; and what was the figure for 10 years ago.

The Minister for the Environment and Countryside (Mr. David Trippier) : No statistics of this nature are available, but it is perfectly clear that there is far too much litter on many of our streets. We are determined to put this matter right, and we shall shortly introduce legislative proposals to tackle the problem.

Mr. Cran : Does my hon. Friend agree that the key to the Government's estimable anti-litter proposals is not just an increase in fines, but enforcement? The City of Westminster is undoubtedly trying to solve the problem, but all we see is innumerable signs telling us of fines and nobody backing them up, with the result that Marsham street, in which the Department of the Environment and I reside, occasionally resembles a street in Cairo rather than London.

Mr. Trippier : I can give my hon. Friend the assurance he seeks. There will be strong enforcement powers in the forthcoming Environmental Protection Bill. Litterers who default on paying fixed penalties within the prescribed time will be prosecuted. That is an important element of enforcement. Moreover, an aggrieved citizen will be able to apply to a magistrates court for a litter abatement order. That is broadly welcome and means that a citizen will be able to take the local authority to court if he is not satisfied with the standard of cleanliness in its area.

Mr. John Evans : Would the Minister care to estimate how many tonnes of litter are left lying on Britain's trunk roads all year long? Is it not time that he instructed his ministerial colleagues in the Department of Transport to clean trunk roads such as the East Lancs highway, which is in my constituency and is so littered with debris and shoulder-high weeds that it often looks like the main thoroughfare in a refugee camp?

Mr. Trippier : I agree with every word that the hon. Gentleman has uttered. He knows that I am familiar with that road. I am delighted to be able to tell him that we shall deal with that problem in the forthcoming Bill.

Mr. Churchill : Will my hon. Friend enter discussions with supermarkets, brewers and the soft drinks trade to explore the possibility of introducing a system of refundable deposits on cans and bottles such as operates so effectively in Switzerland for example?

Mr. Trippier : I am happy to confirm that we are anxious to talk, to supermarkets in particular. I am about to meet representatives of the leading supermarkets, and I hope to raise that issue with them.

Ms. Walley : Rather than extol the virtues of what Westminster city council has done, will the Minister face the fact that, for many years, that council did not charge for the collection of trade refuse? He has not so far got to the heart of the matter. What discussions is he having about the importance of waste reduction and waste minimisation, and applying a precautionary principle rather than enforcement? He is not giving local authorities

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the money they need to deal with competitive tendering. Where is the ability to recycle in this? Where is the Government's real concern about the environment?

Mr. Trippier : I would not disagree with what the hon. Lady said about precautionary measures. When we are talking about waste minimisation, we are talking about recycling in the main. The Government have entered a partnership with Friends of the Earth to launch an initiative for recycling the city in Sheffield. I hope to have the support of the Labour party and other political parties represented in the House for it. We all hope that the initiative will be a success. We hope to learn from it and to replicate it elsewhere.

It is not fair for the hon. Lady to knock what Westminster city council has done. Its initiative to tidy up Westminster has been a tremendous success. The appointment of litter wardens has had a significant deterrent effect. We have chosen the city of Westminster as an example and are building the forthcoming Bill around it.

Mr. Tracey : My hon. Friend has quoted the example of the work that is going on in Westminster, but is he aware that other London boroughs are taking just as much action and setting just as good an example to the rest of the country, for example, Kingston's "Bright and Clean" campaign involves both schoolchildren and the community at large and in Wandsworth, which sets so many examples to other local authorities, there is an anti- litter blitz squad?

Mr. Trippier : I am anxious to pay credit where it is due and I am happy to confirm a number of examples in London where the local authorities have acted responsibly and can be held up as a superb example that the rest of the nation should follow. I hope to visit all the authorities that my hon. Friend has mentioned and I add to his list the London borough of Sutton, which has achieved a considerable degree of success in this area.

Water Quality

10. Mr. Win Griffiths : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment when he expects to receive a response from the European Community on the programmes presented to it to implement the tap water quality and bathing water quality directives.

Mr. Howard : I have received no indication from the Commission as to when it expects to respond.

Mr. Griffiths : Does the Minister agree that there is a good possibility that the Commission will insist on the implementation of both directives at an earlier date than many of the schemes that have been put before the Commission suggest that the Government are prepared to accept? Given that on the bathing water directive alone, the Government intend that £760 million worth of work will be done after 1993, does he agree that if the Commission insists on 1993 as the date, there will be a big shock for those people who are making short-term gains from the water privatisation?

Mr. Howard : No, the hon. Gentleman is wrong on all counts. Our programmes, which are very detailed, provide for the work that can be done to be done as soon as is practicable. I cannot believe that the Commission would

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