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Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey) : On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. At the beginning of each Session we pass an order to protect people's rights of access to the House. I seek your assurance that that will be guaranteed for those who are outside now. There is currently a protest in Parliament square by ambulance personnel. The protest is on the move, but it has not interrupted the traffic and it is not meeting any public opposition. I want an assurance that they will be allowed to continue, provided that they keep moving, that they will not be moved away and that the police will not over-react. While the House is still sitting it is important that we have a clear ruling that they are within the law and can make a peaceful protest. It must be stated that, provided that they are not stationary and do not block the traffic, they are within their rights to carry on that protest for as long as they reasonably wish to do so.
Madam Deputy Speaker : The hon. Member is a man of honour so, of course, I accept what he says. I am not there to see the demonstration. I shall have the matter looked into. I am sure that what the hon. Member says is correct.
Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams) : At this time of Christmas, it would be churlish of me to introduce a note of discord into the House. However, it is right to ask what is the point of passing laws in the House or in the other place if the House is unable to enforce them. I refer in particular to the planning legislation. It illustrates my point well. We pass more and more laws here and find it increasingly difficult to have them enforced.
Much of our time in the House is spent debating in detail, for many hours, points of law that we believe will be enforced in the highest courts of the land once we have passed them. I am afraid that I must tell the House that that is not the case with our planning legislation.
What could be a more sensitive issue in this small island than the ability to control land use? That has been recognised by successive Acts of Parliament and town and country planning legislation. It is true that there are armouries of controls. We have statistics and population forecasts. We have structure plans and local plans. We have Government planning inspectors, applications guidelines and procedures. We have planning committees throughout the length and breadth of the country. Planners form an enormous profession. There are planning advisers--usually local government planners who have retired. There are degrees in planning laws. There is a huge industry to control and manage planning.
I wish to speak about what happens if one cocks a snook, to coin a phrase, at the planning system. If one decides to go ahead regardless of all the planning regulations, laws and procedures, what will happen? My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) would have been here if he had not had to chair a meeting on urban problems. His interest in planning and environment is well known. When asked what would happen if one defied the planning system in his constituency, he said that very little would happen and there was not even a planning enforcement officer in Acton. He wondered why some developer with a little speculation had not built a skyscraper in his constituency. He doubted very much that anyone would have stopped him because there is no one to enforce the law.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) would also have been here but for the pressure of business in his constituency. He echoes the same complaint--that enforcement in his constituency is not effective. I am sure that the Minister recognises that the law is not working. Members of the public do not seek planning permission but go ahead and find little opposition. In my constituency in south Devon, in the area of South Hams, houses and extensions have been built without planning permission. Barns have been converted and factories and shops built but not in accordance with the detailed plans and regulations. Recreation and leisure facilities have been built, seemingly without anyone knowing that planning permission had not been obtained. Raw sewage has been discharged into our beautiful rivers without planning consent. I am sure that the nation is under the mistaken illusion that when such things happen the whole planning contraption springs into action and the local authority, poised like a greyhound, chases out those who defy the
Column 673law. That is not the case. As my hon. Friend the Minister would expect of me, I have gone into great detail on what happens at the rock face when planning laws are defied.
South Hams council has a department specifically geared to deal with people who defy the law. That does it great credit. It has all the machinery ready to pounce. But does the House realise exactly what takes place? I have a letter from David Incoll, solicitor to the council, who says :
"It is a legal requirement that"
to stop somebody doing something which he should not do and for which he needs planning permission
"an Enforcement Notice is served upon everyone with a legal interest in the property or land."
That means not only the owner of the land, but everyone with an interest, however remote, in that land. The enforcement notice must be served on all those with any legal interest.
The first action of the South Hams district council or any other council which has enforcement officers and a legal department is to serve a requisition for information notice on people with a legal interest in the land. The problem is that the council faces great problems in having that notice for information served. It must be served by recorded delivery and its service can be avoided, as Mr. Incoll says,
"by not accepting or collecting the letter."
Therefore, the initial inquiry can be prevented by the person who is addressed refusing to accept the letter which is only a request for information about who has an interest in the land.
As the Minister will know, many councils, including South Hams, have dramatically cut back staff and expenditure to keep to the Government's guidelines on local government expenditure. South Hams planners have kept as far as possible a powerful department, but many local authorities do not have one. Even before an enforcement notice is delivered or sent, the council must send out staff to find out who has an interest in the land.
After 21 days and no reply to the request for information, council staff go out and find out who has an interest in the land. The enforcement notice must then be served on everyone with an interest in the land, not just the owner. It may take many months to serve the enforcement order and, what is worse, many months for it to be enforced. Even then the presumed owner may deny any interest, thus necessitating further inquiries.
Mr. Incoll gives as an example a current case in which he received instructions in November 1988 but has yet to ascertain the ownership, despite the use of private investigators. The Minister will appreciate that the cost in terms of staff time and money on that particular case is considerable and that there are hundreds of other such cases.
I need not trouble the House now about various legal requirements, but if the enforcement notice is not served on everyone with a legal interest the High Court can negative the enforcement notice and charge the local authority with costs for proceeding with it without serving it on all those who should have been served with it. I have got only halfway through the procedure and the House will appreciate how complicated it is. I should pursue this because Hansard should have on record how complicated these matters are. Moreover, if the Minister is not fully briefed, he can be briefed now.
Once the legal interest has been ascertained the enforcement notice can be served and will come into effect
Column 674in not less than 28 days. A notice has to set out a period for compliance. However, if an appeal is made to the Department of the Environment, the effect of the notice is suspended.
Let me give an example. If someone starts to build a factory or a bungalow without planning consent, notices must be served on all the people who have an interest in the land to tell them to stop building. If one cannot find out who they are, one cannot serve an enforcement notice. If one finds them and serves notice, that may take many months, and in the meantime the builders go on building. The council can attempt to serve a stop notice on the builders, but if the builder appeals to the High Court the notice is cast aside, and the builder can go on building. That has been happening throughout the country.
As Mr. Incoll says, the risks involved in serving a stop notice is that compensation is payable if the notice is successfully challenged on appeal for any reason other than that planning permission should have been granted.
I hope that I have given sufficient details to show how complicated the procedure is. Very few people understand it--I am sure that the Minister is one of those who do--and, as a result, it does not work. To enforce the present procedure one needs a vast battery of staff, and one has to rely on the good will and good sense of the British people not to build on our green fields without planning consent, but, if they choose to do so the Minister could and would do little to stop them. Local authorities cannot do what the public want, and the law has become an ass when it tries to enforce stop notices and the planning regulations.
The public criticise the planners every week, local newpapers carry articles chastising the planners for failing to stop schemes, and local politicians are heavily criticised and lose their credibility. Confidence in the planning regime is being destroyed.
Fortunately, Mr. Carnwath QC has come to the rescue like a knight on a white charger and has produced a report in which he said that things are as bad as I say they are, and that the Government must take action. Surprise, surprise, the Government have done nothing. That is odd because one would have thought that they would put something in the Environment Protection Bill that they have just published. Of course we need to do something about dogs mess and litter. That is important, but what about the land? Why are there no enforcement clauses in the new Bill? Unless the Minister puts one in or introduces other legislation by the end of the Session, I warn him that the planning group which consists of some 90 Back-Bench Conservative Members mostly from the south of the country has agreed to put an amendment in the Bill on Report. That will help the Government to do something about a problem that the Minister says needs to be tackled.
It is all very well to clear up litter and dog mess, but it is more important not to have our green and pleasant land covered with unauthorised developments.
The problem has been caused in this place, because we have not passed legislation that is effective and efficient. A clumsy, inefficient and protracted state of affairs exists.
The public have a right to expect something from the Government, and if the Minister will not commit himself today a question mark will be raised over the Government's green policy and programme. There is no point in dealing with trivia if the major problem is not tackled.
Column 675The Government have robustly stated the importance of local plans. They confirm that the boundaries laid down in them are near sacrosanct. Successive Secretaries of State have said that they must not be breached on appeal by planning inspectors. Only 10 per cent. of the nation has properly consitituted local plans. I am glad to say that South Hams district council, as one would expect, has properly constituted plans. They are current, excellent, well prepared, there has been adequate local consultation on them and they are in place. The problem is that developers are waiting like sharks for one Government inspector to breach the boundary of the development area. South Hams is in great danger. We have more areas of outstanding natural beauty, of great landscape value, protected coastline, heritage coastline, conservation areas and national park than any other area. We could not have more designation designed to protect the environment from development outside the local plan, but we have a problem with twin tracking.
Twin tracking is nothing to do with British Rail having a second line or being privatised. It is a way in which developers may bounce the system by putting in two identical planning applications at the same time. One runs through to the local authority which should have come to a decision within eight weeks. Often, however, the application is too complicated to decide on quickly, so the details have to be discussed with the developer. After eight weeks, the second application jumps straight to the planning inspector. The developers try to bounce the local planning committee and get the Government to decide something which should be a local authority planning matter.
We should also consider the time and cost to which the local authority is put when it has to deal with two planning applications, one for its own planning committee and one for the Minister. The Minister should deal with this matter seriously. He probably knows of a written answer I received on 5 December which said that planning appeals rose from 19,856 in 1986-87 to 22,482 in 1987-88 and to 28, 659 in 1988-89, representing increases over the previous year of 11.3, 13.2 and 27.4 per cent. respectively. Planning appeals have increased by 40 per cent. during the past three years. Why? Because of twin tracking. Regardless of cost, big developers will try to speed things up and put pressure on the Government and local authorities to make a decision that they might not want to make. I shall give my hon. Friend an example of what I mean. It is unfortunate that large developers such as George Wimpey should try to buck the system. Two applications for major developments in South Hams are pending. One is in Wembury, which is an area of great landscape value, outstanding natural beauty and a conservation area. That company has put in an application to build 16 detached bungalows right outside the development area. I hope that my hon. Friend will say that he will robustly encourage inspectors not to breach local plans and the development area. In a letter, the chairman of George Wimpey told me :
"Whilst I appreciate the concerns expressed in your letter it is the opinion of the management within Wimpey Homes and their planning advisers that the site in question will make a sensible rounding off of the present village envelope and that the proposed development would not detract from the high quality environment."
Column 676As if that was not enough, George Wimpey put in an application on 20 December to build 193 houses in the South Brent area, which is on the edge of the Dartmoor national park.
My hon. Friend the Minister should say something about the importance of local plans, how they are sacrosanct and how he would, through his planning inspectors, resist any attempt to breach them as George Wimpey would wish him to do.
I have spoken for 20 minutes about two aspects of the planning laws that are in disarray. We need to hear from the Minister today that the Government will be robust. Whenever I see my hon. Friend on the Front Bench, I am encouraged because I know that he is a man after my own heart. He will agree that preserving and keeping the environment is uppermost in our minds. I look forward to hearing what he has to say.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Christopher Chope) : As always, I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) for his contribution to the debate about planning. He has made his contribution with his customary vigour and he was as persuasive as ever.
I must state at the outset that while last year I had more specific responsibilities for planning, my responsibilities this year have more to do with housing and local government finance. However, that does not mean that I have not had the opportunity to discuss these isues with my hon. Friend as frequently as I did--
Mr. Chope : In one sense perhaps the wrong Minister is present. I am here because the Minister with specific responsibility for these matters, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Mr. Moynihan), has a problem with his teeth. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams will excuse his absence from the Chamber today. No doubt my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East will read the report of our debate with interest. Needless to say, I have been well briefed to respond to my hon. Friend's concerns.
My hon. Friend has drawn attention to the difficulties experienced by his local planning authority--South Hams district
council--particularly in connection with enforcement. The Government recognise that there are difficulties with enforcement and that those difficulties are not unique to south Devon, the area which my hon. Friend has the good fortune to represent.
I want to refer briefly to the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams about the problems in the constituency represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young). Planning enforcement is a responsibility for local authorities. If they choose not to employ anyone to carry out that planning enforcement, local citizens should look to the local authority because that is where the blame lies. In May 1990 the citizens of Ealing will have an opportunity to express their views through the ballot box.
I emphasise that, much criticised though they are, the present enforcement powers in part V of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971, are not so defective in practice as some critics would have us believe. Indeed, one of the unfortunate results of the repeated criticism of the present
Column 677powers is that those responsible in planning authorities for using them sometimes too readily assume--and say publicly-- that nothing can be done. That becomes a self-defeating attitude because it encourages some of the least law-abiding developers--who are a fairly small minority in any area--to defy the planning laws.
The experience of some planning authorities is that, despite certain shortcomings, the present enforcement provisions can be made to operate to good effect, provided that the planning authority is determined in its approach to dealing with breaches of planning control and is seen-- especially by those who may be tempted to carry out unlawful development-- to move quickly into action when it is essential to do so.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Hams referred to a report prepared by Robert Carnwath QC. When my right hon. Friend the present Secretary of State for Trade and Industry was Secretary of State for the Environment, he commissioned the Carnwath report because of the Government's concern about certain shortcomings on the enforcement side of planning. As my hon. Friend is aware, Robert Carnwath is a highly respected barrister with a thorough knowledge of planning law. His report was published last April and it has been generally welcomed during the consultation exercise which my Department set in hand immediately following the report's publication.
The Government very warmly welcome the recommendations in that report. Some of the Carnwath recommendations deal with the precise concerns expressed by my hon. Friend. For example, there are recommendations that stop notices should be allowed to have immediate effect in special cases, by which Mr. Carnwath means cases in which serious harm to the local environment is occurring.
Mr. Carnwath also recommends that stop notices should in future be able to prohibit the unlawful stationing of a caravan on land that is being used for residential purposes. Because many planning authorities still fear the potential compensation liability if they serve a stop notice and the accompanying enforcement notice is later quashed on appeal, on "legal grounds", there is a recommendation that the extent of the compensation liability be made more precise, and be strictly limited when the developer fails to provide adequate information about his activities on land on which a breach of planning control is occurring.
Among other helpful recommendations, perhaps the most important to my hon. Friend is Mr. Carnwath's suggestion that the planning authority should be able to obtain an injunction to restrain a threatened as well as an actual breach of planning control. That is really a further extension of authorities' existing powers in section 222 of the Local Government Act 1972, but it is the application of the power to a threatened breach which is vital in the context of some of the problems to which my hon. Friend has referred. My hon. Friend referred also to problems with serving enforcement notices. He will know that on page 75 of the Carnwath report there is a recommendation to amend the law dealing with that problem. The recommendations have been made, and the Government accept them. The remaining issue is when legislation can be brought before the House. My hon. Friend referred to the Environment Protection Bill. That is not a planning Bill. The Government hoped that it would be possible to bring forward a planning Bill this Session, but it so happened that there was insufficient parliamentary time for that to
Column 678happen. I hope that we shall be able to bring forward a planning Bill next Session and that my hon. Friend's concerns can be dealt with in that legislation. On amendments to the Environment Protection Bill, my hon. Friend will need to consider that matter in the light of the basis of the Bill. I would not seek to advise him about that. However, I will report his comments to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.
My hon. Friend also mentioned his concern about the difficulties caused by the submission of dual planning applications. I certainly understand that concern. Among other things, the practice is wasteful of local authorities' time and potentially confusing for members of the public who are interested in the proposed development. Many developers submit duplicate applications for the same proposal so that if the local planning authority fails to reach a decision within the statutory period, they can appeal in respect of one application while continuing to negotiate on the other. It appears that the purpose of that "twin tracking" is to spur the local planning authority to make a decision on the second application before the first has been decided on appeal, in which case the appeal can be withdrawn.
Developers have been encouraged to submit dual applications by the fact that once a case has gone to appeal under section 37 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971 because the local planning authority has not determined it within the statutory period, the authority ceases to have any jurisdiction over the application. That problem would largely disappear if all local planning authorities were to meet the Government's target of deciding 80 per cent. of their applications within eight weeks. However, we must obviously address the fact that, unfortunately, many authorities fail to perform as well as that. My hon. Friend's own district council of South Hams is still falling well short of that target.
Mr. Steen : Is my hon. Friend aware that the Government have also been failing? Only 50.8 per cent. of all cases on appeal have been fulfilled within the period set down by the town and country planning inquiries procedure rules? The Government are only 50 per cent. as good as they should be.
Mr. Chope : I would be the first to accept that there have been shortages of resources on both sides. My hon. Friend has referred to the dramatic increase in the volume of planning appeals, partly engendered as a result of the slowness of local authorities and the number of appeals that have come forward through non-determination. We have put substantial additional resources into the appeals system. For example, we have appointed many new inspectors. I hope that that will result in improved performance in the coming months. We are not complacent about that, and I am prepared to accept my hon. Friend's criticism.
In the time available it is not possible to examine in detail all the cases to which my hon. Friend referred. In any event, he will probably recognise the formula that, because my right hon. Friend sits in a quasi-judicial capacity as an appellate authority, it is not possible for him to comment on individual cases.
My hon. Friend said that he would like to say a little about local plans. The Government have encouraged local authorities to develop local plans and I am delighted that my hon. Friend's own authority has been quick to come
Column 679forward with a clear local plan. The effect of that should be that there is a greater awareness locally of the developments that are likely to be acceptable and the developments that are not. I am pleased to be able to tell my hon. Friend that there is quite a lot of evidence to suggest that, as a result of having a local plan, South Hams has a lower percentage appeals success rate. That means that fewer people are appealing successfully against my hon. Friend's local authority because it has a local plan. That should be an example to other authorities who complain about the volume of appeals. If they introduce a local plan, fewer appeals should be made against them in future.
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) : I was intending to start by saying that it falls to me to make the last Back-Bench speech not only of 1989 but of the decade. It will not be the speech of the decade, but I had thought that it would give me a minor place in history at least. Selfless as I am, however, I have given that honour to my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing). This will be a double act on behalf of Newham, and my hon. Friend will have the last word unless my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) rushes in with a last-minute point of order. If he does, Mr. Speaker, I hope that you will show him no mercy whatever. The decade has not been a good one for London. I am afraid that during the past 10 years homelessness and poverty in the capital city have doubled so that cardboard boxes and begging have become very much the symbols of Thatcherism in London. With the abolition of the GLC, London became the only capital city in Europe without a citywide local authority and, whatever the Minister and Conservative Members may say, that shows in the largely unco-ordinated planning that we now have in London. Many of our roads resemble ploughed fields and traffic congestion is appalling. Recently the Government announced their proposals for red routes. What we need in London is a bit of red terror to go with those red routes. The extent to which people park on double yellow lines and at bus stops is appalling. It is anarchy, in traffic terms, out on the streets of London, and parking laws are largely unenforced.
This may be the time of good will, and the spirit of Christmas may be all around us, but I have no good will whatever towards selfish parkers in London. Rather than having their cars clamped, I should be in favour of having their cars towed away to the car crusher straight away and sending them the bill afterwards. That is how strongly I feel about selfish parkers.
I want to discuss transport in London. The policies pursued by the Government during the past decade have resulted in London's having probably the most understaffed, unreliable, overcrowded, dirty and inefficient transport system in Europe, and certainly the worst that London has had. London seems to many of us to be going backwards from developed status towards less-developed status.
Earlier this week, the Secretary of State for Transport announced the phasing out of revenue subsidies for British Rail's Network SouthEast. It is ridiculous that whereas the French, German, Belgian and Dutch Governments are all giving more subsidies to their urban transport system, the British Government are taking away revenue support. They talk about capital investment in transport in London and elsewhere, but most of that capital investment comes from internally generated sources within British Rail and co-operative schemes with private enterprise.
If we had a beter transport system than the Belgians, the Dutch or the French, the Government might have a case to argue for their policy. But we do not. We obviously--manifestly--have a far worse transport system in London and elsewhere than any of those countries, and everyone knows it.
Column 681Only today, I noticed in the newspapers that London Regional Transport, in response to excess demand, has announced that there will be fare increases each year for the next five years at least above the rate of inflation to
"deter passengers because soaring numbers cannot safely be accommodated."
What sort of system is that? If one had a restaurant where people wanted more tables, or if one were selling things from a market stall and there was great demand, one would not try to kill off that demand, but to expand the capacity and produce more goods, and so continue to increase revenue. One would not try to kill off revenue, but that is what LRT will do by imposing increases to deter passengers. That is absurd. What sane commercial undertaking would pursue such a course? The Government are not fit to run a market stall despite the spiv-like tendency of a number of Conservative Members. I exonerate from that accusation, of course, the young and handsome Minister for Public Transport, who will reply from the Dispatch Box.
London, and especially London transport, have become a sick joke. Passengers are treated as if they were an inconvenience getting in the way of running an efficient transport system. The blame for that attitude lies wholly with the Government and their inefficient and purblind transport policies. A classic example of the chaotic nature of London transport may be seen in the system of tendering for bus routes currently being operated by LRT, at the insistence of the Government themselves. Tendering has been taking place since 1985. The system is designed to try to cut the cost of bus operations by inviting various companies to undercut each other in a bid to win contracts.
For the workers, tendering means lower wages, worse conditions and longer hours. The passengers do not benefit from lower fares because the same fares apply on the tendered routes as on the routes operated by London Buses. Passengers will notice that the service is far less efficient in many cases than on the routes operated by London Buses. Many of the companies use older vehicles to save money which leads to more breakdowns and unreliability. Low wages mean staff shortages, the cancellation of buses and longer waits for passengers at bus stops. Safety standards are also much reduced. Private bus companies simply do not demand the same level of safety as does London Buses and they do not carry out the same medical checks on staff. London Buses has a good reputation for ensuring that the most rigorous health checks are carried out on its drivers. Some people who have previously been rejected by LRT or who have been discharged by LRT as being unfit to drive end up as bus drivers on some of the tendered routes. That cannot be good for the safety of passengers in London. Tendering is not full privatisation, but it is a form of sub- contracting. I find it especially objectionable that London ratepayers and passengers have to pay the bills. All London Regional Transport has done is to say that it will give companies a certain amount of money to operate bus routes. London ratepayers and the London travelling public have to pay the full cost.
The tenders are decided in secret and we do not know how the system operates or what is taken into account. It is said that no one is entitled to know that because of commercial confidentiality. When the Greater London council used to run the London transport system, we would not have been able to get away with that. There
Column 682were part 2s on our agendas so that matters of commercial consideration would be respected by members, but members would know about them and would be accountable for what they did. There is no accountability now, which is one of the most objectionable aspects of tendering for bus routes that I have discovered so far.
I shall take us on a little trip around some of the routes in London that have been put out to tender, so that we can see what has happened to them. On route 317, from Enfield to Upshire the tender was awarded to Samson Coaches. Unfortunately, because of its policy of low wages and the use of old buses, it simply could not get the staff, and after one year, LRT was forced to take back the route. Route 250, which runs from Romford to Hornchurch, was awarded to Front Runner. The company had to bus its drivers down from the midlands to drive in London because the low wages and poor conditions that it offered did not attract drivers from London. The knowledge that such drivers had of the routes in London was not as good as that of native Londoners, but that is not a matter of any consideration for LRT and the Department of Transport. That route was taken back from Front Runner and awarded to Ensign Bus Company. Let us hope that it is slightly more successful.
Route 200 runs from Kingston to Streatham and route 196 runs from Crystal Palace to Brixton. They were awarded to a company called Cityrama on a three-year contract basis. Route 200 was taken back after two years by LRT and handed back to London Buses. Route 196 was taken back in October this year and awarded to a company called London and Country Buses.
Route 403, from Coulsdon to Epsom, and route 197 and 197A, from Caterham to Croydon, were also awarded to that company, but, because of staff shortages brought about through poor pay and long hours, the service was appalling. Many complaints were received not only by LRT but by Members of Parliament representing Croydon. In August this year, LRT asked Croydon garage to provide evening and Saturday services for those routes. On 26 October, it was asked to take over the routes completely.
On the same day, London and Country Buses was asked to take over the 196 route. That is madness. Here is a company that is manifestly incapable of running an efficient bus service for the people of south London, particularly the people of Croydon, with whom you have more than a passing acquaintance, Mr Speaker. Having failed to run that service, it was still offered another service by LRT and a service that had been taken away from another inefficient private company. Is this the way to run a bus service in London? The question is rhetorical, because no one who uses London buses would say that it was the right way. Dogma cannot drive buses, but that is what the Government, through LRT, are attempting to do.
I would give a great deal to inspect the finances behind the No. 24 route. This is a prestigious route, which stands alone in comparison with the other tendered-out routes. That route is important, and goes right by the House of Commons. Many distinguished Members of Parliament use it. That route is a fiddle--I am convinced of that. Something has happened between LRT, the company that runs it--Grey-Green--and the Department of Transport. I hope that the Minister will say that he is prepared to let me go over the books so that I can see how the tender was awarded.
Column 683London buses are in a mess. I know that the Minister will say that bus miles are at an all-time record. I do not know how often he uses buses, but those bus miles are being kept up in several ways. The first is by the use of the small feeder buses--hoppers. One cannot make a comparison between those buses and enormous double-decker buses. Secondly, because many double-decker buses run into congestion problems on the streets of London they are being told to run empty with "Special" in the destination window. They go past bus stops with passengers waiting for them. Many passengers say that they wish that they could live in a place called "Special service" because there seem to be so many buses on their way to it. That is nonsense and it goes back to the point that I made earlier. We now have an organisation running London's transport which thinks that passengers get in the way of the operation of an efficient transport system. That is the madness that the decade has brought us to on the buses and in London's transport generally.
London used to have one of the best bus systems in the world, but it is now reduced to an overpriced slow and unreliable patchwork quilt of a service. After a decade of authoritarian second-rate government, the Government cannot even share the boast of a previous dictator, in justification for what he was doing, that the trains have been made to run on time.
I cannot allow my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South to intervene without wishing you and your family, Mr. Speaker, the happiest Christmas and, on behalf of my colleagues on the packed Benches on both sides of the House, I offer our thanks to all the staff of the House of Commons who have worked so hard over the year and over the decade to provide us with the sort of service that we have come to expect. We may have a rotten bus service out there, but we have high standards in here. We make sure of that. I should like to see the standards that we operate here operating on London buses as well. On behalf of all my colleagues, I thank them for all the services that they have given us.
I can now wish you, Mr. Speaker, a happy decade to come. I hope that that decade will see the restoration of a Labour Government ; Labour Members translated to the Government Benches. Who knows, I and my hon. Friends may be making a speech from the Dispatch Box at the last knockings of another decade. There would certainly be a better country and a better capital city in which to live because we would restore Londonwide government to London.
I hope also that we shall be able to say that as the 1990s draw to a close we have an efficient, properly run and comfortable transport system in London, which is something that Londoners want and deserve.
Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South) : I join my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) in wishing you, Mr. Speaker, and the staff of the House who have served us so well a happy Christmas and new year.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me a few minutes in which to contribute to the debate. We in east London are particularly dependent on public transport.
Column 684Car ownership is our area is, understandably, rather lower than elsewhere and that has the advantage of not adding to congestion. My hon. Friend referred to the great London transport system of the 1930s which was brought about by the London Passenger Transport Act 1933--a bipartisan measure. That organisation became the envy of the world. The former boroughs of East Ham and West Ham and the former London county council willingly gave up their tramway services, locally controlled to help local people, in order to provide that very service.
Now we find the reverse tendency. My hon. Friend referred to the red buses. Alas, there are now 11 companies ready to be split up and no doubt privatised if the Government so wish. The ability to do that is contained in legislation. Some of the minibuses to which my hon. Friend referred belong to London Buses Ltd. and some are organised by private contractors, not even subject to London Regional Transport which has a statutory duty to co-ordinate transport. They are clearly designed to undercut the existing comprehensive service, in 11 parts though it be, and it is no doubt the Government's ultimate intention to have a sort of Hong Kong situation, a territory in which they are rather interested at the moment.
In Newham there have been bus route changes without effective consultation with the council, leading to many problems for elderly people, particularly going to the Canning Town shopping centre. The zones, which are very useful for persons with through tickets, have been changed. If people want to go to the Asda supermarket, they now have to cross a zone boundary within the borough. I took up the matter with London Buses. I was told that this was to protect revenue. That sort of nonsense is spreading like wildfire throughout the city.
The Routemaster buses are coming towards the end of their useful life. It is a reflection on this Government's priorities, in terms of production as against services, that London Regional Transport contemplates obtaining engines for the buses--which were made entirely in London at Park Royal-- from Poland, Italy and, believe it or not, from India. That is the state to which the Government have brought the country's manufacturing capability. We know what they have done to public services. There was an earlier debate about ambulances. The Government have destroyed the concept of public service.
The Prime Minister was right when she said that the House should call the Administration to account over legislation and taxation. However, her policies are wrong. I believe that the verdict on the Thatcher decade will be that the Government's social and economic policies have been disastrous. 3.20 pm
The Minister for Public Transport (Mr. Michael Portillo) : I thank the hon. Members for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) and for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) for what has turned out to be a historic debate. I had not fully appreciated its significance. I feel sorry for anyone who switched on their television set at 3.15, hoping to see the Prime Minister, and ended up watching me. However, anyone who switched on their set because they wanted to see the Leader of the Opposition but saw instead the hon. Members for Newham, North-West, and for Newham, South will have been delighted by the
Column 685substitution. Their remarks provide me with an opportunity to extend good wishes for Christmas to you, Mr. Speaker, and to the Officers of the House.
The hon. Member for Newham, South is concerned about transport in east London. If he were to be entirely fair, I think that he would be willing to admit that I have given a great deal of personal attention to transport in east London. I am very concerned about it. The Jubilee line extension to docklands and to the east end of London, including the constituencies of the hon. Members for Newham, North-West and for Newham, South was approved by the Government. We look forward to that extension becoming a reality. They also know that the east-west cross rail, which will be of particular benefit to Stratford, is being urgently considered by the Government and may be the line for which a Bill is introduced next year.
A number of privately operated minibuses are now used in docklands. They benefit the constituents of both hon. Gentlemen. They could not have been provided without the liberalisation of transport under this Government. The main theme of the debate is about bus services that have gone out to tender, but it would be wrong not to say a word or two about the opening remarks of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West concerning revenue support and investment. As a former chairman of the Greater London council, he is in a very good position to appreciate the greatly increased investment in London Regional Transport and in the railways. It is much higher today than it was when the GLC had control of London Regional Transport. Today's investment in London Regional Transport is about double what it was under the GLC.
We propose to reduce Network SouthEast's subsidy from £100 million today to zero in about 1992. The network agrees that that is an objective which can be achieved. However, the £100 million reduction in subsidy has to be compared with the £5 billion investment programme in the network over the coming year. There is no comparison between a £100 million loss of subsidy and £5 billion of investment. Investment leads to the railway of tomorrow, new rolling stock and the better stations that many people in the south-east are now beginning to enjoy.
That investment will require a partnership between the taxpayer on the one hand and the farepayer on the other, or taxpayers--many of them from outside London--would have to bear the full brunt of British Rail's future investment in the London area.
I want to concentrate on tendering. Tendering of London bus services has led to increased reliability. The hon. Member for Newham, North-West was rather anecdotal, so I shall give some figures. Tendering has led to an increase in the number of bus miles run, a decrease in the costs of the services and meant, therefore--