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Column 986be so unreasonable as to insist on earlier dates. In any event, that would not be to the disadvantage of investors, who are entitled to a reasonable return on their capital in accordance with the provisions of the legislation.
Mr. Steen : Is my hon. Friend aware of the bad quality of the sea water along much of the coastline of south Devon, where a young lady swimmer caught hepatitis A last summer as a result of swimming in the sea? Does he agree that lengthening the outfall pipes will not solve any of the problems because it will simply divert the sewage right along the coastline to other beaches?
Mr. Howard : I agree that much needs to be done to improve the quality of our bathing waters, but the proposals of South West Water plc, in common with other plcs, amount to much more than simply lengthening the outfall pipes. Their proposals are carefully considered and prepared and will achieve compliance with the European Community's directive.
Mr. McGrady : Will the Minister discuss with his EEC colleagues the rise in pollution in the Irish sea, which is so damaging to the marine aquasystem? Will he suggest setting up a tripartite commission involving the Governments of the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland and the Isle of Man to study pollution and to make suggestions for its eradication?
Mr. David Shaw : Is my hon. Friend aware that in the run-up to water privatisation Southern Water announced that it would invest heavily to improve the sewage situation in the English Channel in the Deal, Dover and Folkestone area? Is he further aware that the privatisation will bring that investment forward and that more money will be available to improve the quality of the water in that area?
Mrs. Ann Taylor : But if there are to be extra costs to meet EEC standards, who is to pay? Is the Minister aware that some stockbrokers are already warning the new shareholders that extra spending may require another rights issue? Will the Government allow that to happen or will Ministers step in again to put the interests of shareholders first? Will Ministers make taxpayers or consumers foot another bill on top of the £3 billion that the privatisation has already cost the taxpayers of this country?
Mr. Howard : The limits on price rises that I announced in August provide for the £24.6 billion investment programme which will take place during the next 10 years and accounts for the industry's predictable investment needs. The success of the privatisation lay behind part of the hon. Lady's question. The hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) said in the Financial Times of 14 September that "Success will be measured in terms of how enthusiastically the small investor goes for the issue."
I am content to accept his criteria, and on that test it is clear that the issue was a resounding success.
Column 987Miss Emma Nicholson : Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that this hostage to fortune matches in its eloquence and efficiency the hostage to fortune put forward earlier this summer by the hon. Member for Dagenham's colleague who said that South West Water would not be a triumph when it was offered for privatisation? That is now selling superbly.
Mr. Howard : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Labour party was determined to wreck the privatisation, did everything it could to wreck it and manifestly failed to do so. All we have from it now are the sourest of sour grapes.
Mr. Trippier : The Government are committed to protect public access to the countryside through the rights-of-way network. We fully support the Countryside Commission's initiatives, working with local highway authorities, to raise the profile of rights of way work and improve the quality of access.
Mr. Bennett : Does the Minister accept that walking is a growing recreational activity in this country and that the number of people who enjoy it both in wild and mountainous areas and on urban fringes is steadily increasing?
We should look for new areas to which people can obtain access to avoid the overuse of some of the existing honeyspots. What are the Government doing to improve access as opposed to protecting existing access?
Mr. Trippier : We must put this matter in context. The 140,000 mile network of rights of way is, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, the main means by which the public can gain access to the wider countryside. Walking as a recreation is certainly on the increase. The Countryside Commission has come forward with a new initiative entitled "Enjoying the Countryside". It has made specific recommendations to which we are anxious to respond and has also made specific recommendations to the highway authorities to which I hope that they will respond.
Mr. Colin Shepherd : Is my hon. Friend aware that in many districts around the urban areas of this country, footpaths are cluttered with a horrible accretion of discarded supermarket trolleys? When he meets the supermarket operators, will he take a strong line with them and ask them to introduce a system whereby before trolleys are taken into the stores supermarkets demand a deposit which can be reclaimed when the trolleys are left behind in the parking lot?
Mr. Denis Howell : Since 20 per cent. of the nation walk in the countryside each year and the Countryside Commission has just reported to us that up to half the rights of way are difficult or impossible to use--it estimates that one cannot walk further than two miles before reaching a ploughed right of way or some other
Column 988obstruction--will the Minister consider asking the Countryside Commission to take a new initiative to propose, with the regional sports councils and recreational councils, a new development plan for walking? That is desperately needed in this country. Will he consider increasing the Government grant to highway authorities from £14 million to £21 million so that they can meet their programme? Will he kindly consider giving the Countryside Commission default powers to deal with ploughed footpaths which need to be opened up but the landowners or farmers are unwilling to do that.
Mr. Trippier : I shall try to remember all those questions. In reply to the first, I am happy to respond positively to the right hon. Gentleman's request that we should approach the Countryside Commission to see whether we can enter into partnership with the regional sports councils. That seems to be a good idea. In terms of the amount of money that the Countryside Commission referred to in its report and the initiative that I mentioned earlier, the Commission suggests that a great deal can be achieved through money being made available by local authorities. The amounts are between £40,000 and £90,000--not high amounts but that money could go a long way. The right hon. Gentleman asked about the ploughing of footpaths which he said can destroy public enjoyment of the countryside. Of course there is legislation which says that footpaths should be reinstated within two weeks. I am not entirely satisfied that that is happening. I welcome the opportunity to say that farmers who break the law must expect to face the penalty.
Mr. Oppenheim : When my right hon. Friend meets the association in the near future will he make it absolutely clear that if community charge levels in Derbyshire are higher than expected it will be solely due to the profligacy of the county council whose spending included the cost of sending a delegation to that well-known home of liberal democracy, North Korea? Will he urge the county council to emulate the example of Amber Valley borough council which has saved a huge amount through competitive tendering and which has ploughed much of that money back into improved services, including environmental schemes and recycling?
Mr. Patten : I am sure that my hon. Friend is right to suggest that life would be much happier for charge payers and people in Derbyshire if Derbyshire county council were as prudent as the Amber Valley district council. My hon. Friend asked me to make representations to Derbyshire county council. Alas, as it is not a member of the Association of County Councils, I would not be able to get through to it in that way.
Column 989inadequacy of Government regulations, especially with regard to toxic waste--an inadequacy which is deplorably and sadly continuing and is a very great problem in my constituency?
Mr. Patten : I hope that our proposals in the Environment Protection Bill will help to deal more sensibly with waste. As the hon. Gentleman may know, we have made proposals to the other members of the European Community about toxic waste and I hope that we shall have Community support in trying to follow them up in the OECD.
Mr. Hind : When my right hon. Friend meets the Association of County Councils, will he tell it that the community charge protects and benefits many people on low incomes? I am speaking especially of single pensioners and single-parent families. In my constituency 80 per cent. of council house tenants in receipt of housing benefit will not pay the full community charge and that also applies to 38 per cent. of owner-occupiers and private tenants. The only real danger to those people is from Labour-controlled county councils who will heap additional costs on the community charge in order to try to win seats that are held by Conservative Members.
Mr. Patten : I totally agree with my hon. Friend. The best way to help all charge payers, including those who are less well off, is to ensure that councils provide value for money and reduce their spending to what is absolutely essential. My hon. Friend was also right to mention the substantial support being given through benefits to charge payers. That will amount to at least £2.5 billion.
Mr. Salmond : Although the Secretary of State will not meet representatives of Nirex before Christmas, will the Minister take this opportunity to bring some Christmas cheer to the north of Scotland? Will he instruct the nuclear agency to accept the democratic and overwhelming vote of the people of Caithness against the Nirex proposals? Does he accept that that vote, in line with other expressions of opinion throughout Scotland, makes it clear that no area of Scotland will consent to be somebody else's nuclear dustbin?
Mr. Trippier : We must put the matter into context. First, we are talking about planning applications not for the facilities but for test bore drilling. That is the point that the hon. Gentleman addresses. The matter is before my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and he is obliged to take into account views expressed by local people.
Mr. Skinner : Will the Minister have a word with the Secretary of State for Energy? Does he recall that when the Secretary of State was Chief Whip, he and three of his hon. Friends were not anxious about having that low-level nuclear waste dumped in their constituencies? Now that
Column 990the former Chief Whip is the Secretary of State for Energy and seems to believe that nuclear power is God's gift to the human race, perhaps he has changed his mind. Perhaps he might like to have it dumped in his constituency. Will the Minister ask him?
Mr. Trippier : Much of what the hon. Gentleman says is completely irrelevant to the question about Nirex. The principal point is that the safe disposal facilities have been suggested and welcomed by the House of Commons Select Committee on the Environment and the House of Lords Select Committee. I need hardly point out that those are all-party Committees.
Mr. Howard : It has long been Government policy that local authorities should consult sporting and recreational interests in considering any application for the development of recreational land. The Department is currently preparing a planning policy guidance note on sport and recreation which will consolidate and update the existing guidance.
Mr. Greenway : I did not say of all ages but perhaps I should have done. We are in danger of becoming a nation of Billy Bunters because playing fields are disappearing owing to local authority pressure on them for building. Is he aware that in my constituency the beautiful Cayton road playing fields--17 acres with trees and the rest--have been children's playing fields for over 50 years? The national Labour party says that it is in favour of retaining playing fields, but Ealing Labour-controlled council is doing its utmost to build on them and to take them away from the community and from children. Will he do something about it?
Mr. Howard : Were it not for the Government's sensible policy on these matters, the danger referred to by my hon. Friend might well exist. I know that he has made a strenuous effort to fight for the retention of the playing field to which he referred but he will understand that, as the decision may come before my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, I cannot comment on the matter further today.
Mr. Menzies Campbell : Does the Minister know of any case where playing fields sold for redevelopment have been returned to use as playing fields? Does not the absence of such cases make vital a proper national Government strategy rather than mere guidelines?
Mr. Howard : We have asked the Sports Council, the Central Council of Physical Recreation and the National Playing Fields Association to combine to consider the matter and to determine whether it is desirable to compile a register of playing fields. That might go some way to meet the hon. and learned Gentleman's points.
16. Mr. Arbuthnot : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment how many additional lettings over the next two years are expected to be made available for the homeless as a result of his Department's homelessness initiative.
Mr. Chris Patten : The Government estimate that around 15,000 additional lettings will be made available as a result of the extra £250 million to be allocated over the next two years to local authorities and housing associations for schemes to assist the homeless.
Mr. Arbuthnot : Is my right hon. Friend aware that that is extremely welcome news and that two ways of encouraging a reduction in homelessness are first, to encourage private tenancies rather than discourage them by rent controls and other restrictions and secondly, to encourage housing associations rather than rely or impose too heavily on local authorities? Will he confirm that the Government's policies are achieving precisely that?
Mr. Patten : My hon. Friend has certainly set out our objectives clearly. That is why, for example, we are proposing to double the Housing Corporation's programme in the next three years, which will allow it to produce many more homes. That is also why we have
Column 992encouraged the private-rented sector through legislation and in other ways. I am delighted that the business expansion scheme is providing an additional £350 million for private renting.
Mr. Soley : Does the Secretary of State recognise that almost every housing organisation recognises that this panic-striken cash hand-out is nowhere near enough to meet the disgrace of homeless teenage children begging on our streets, possibly for the first time in 80 years? Why does he not do what the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) urged a previous spokesman on housing to do, namely allow local authorities to use capital receipts from council house sales to build, repair and renovate? Why was it that when that Minister made that recommendation, he suddenly became a junior Minister in the Northern Ireland Office?
Mr. Patten : The hon. Gentleman is the first person to describe the £250 million initiative that we have launched in that way. The figure that we announced a few weeks ago exceeded some of the figures we had been pressed for by housing associations, including one which represents the Labour party. It is insulting to refer to Northern Ireland as the hon. Gentleman did. Moreover, there would not have been any receipts from the right to buy if the Opposition had had anything to do with it.
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