That this House, while welcoming the general improvement in people's living standards and the increasing freedom which they enjoy in their everyday lives, believes these advances must now be more closely matched by a quality of life in which clean air, pure water, unpolluted beaches, graffiti-free buildings, litterless streets, reduced noise levels, efficient waste management and recycling of material resources and support for the maintenance of our historic heritage, together with other enhancements of the natural and urban environment, will all assume much greater importance ; and calls on the Government, through the necessary minimum regulation, education and encouragement of individual self- discipline, to continue to play its full part in developing a healthier, safer and more attractive environment for all our people, in town and country alike.
Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight) : My hon. Friend mentioned clean air. Did he read the medical briefing in The Times on 1 November, entitled, "Dose of blocked flue"? In that article, Dr. Thomas Stuttaford described the problems of blocked flues in people's homes and the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning. He said :
"Minor degrees of carbon monoxide poisoning provide a wide variety"--
The article stated :
"Minor degrees of carbon monoxide poisoning provide a wide variety of vague symptoms : headaches, muscle weakness, dizziness, breathlessness, and an intellectual deterioration accompanied by a poor memory."
Does my hon. Friend agree that that is something from which the Opposition are suffering?
Mr. Neubert : This may be one of those occasions that have a large number of unusual features. My hon. Friend's intervention, even before I began my speech, is one of them. I missed the report in The Times, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing it to my attention. I shall go to the Library as soon as the debate has ended and bring myself up to date.
It is almost 40 years since I joined the Conservative party and began in active politics. In all that time, I cannot recall anything to match the intensity of the events of the past few weeks. The leadership contest in the Conservative parliamentary party has taken up every waking minute and hour, and it has dominated the media. Yet on Wednesday 14 November, the very day on which the challenger declared his intention to stand for the leadership and battle was joined, it was business as usual in the House of Commons, including the ballot for private Members' motions.
Column 1110As chance would have it, I was first in line to sign the ballot book, and I took the opportunity to sign my name against No. 1. When No. 1 came out first in the ballot, enabling me to initiate today's debate, I realised what a simple system it was. When I came to sign the ballot book for the private Members' day next Friday, I did not make the same mistake--I signed against No. 87. I am happy to leave the debate to my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) and other hon. Friends while I keep my programme of engagements for that day.
When it came to choosing a subject for debate, it was difficult to concentrate on policies when personalities were so much the order of the day. With a parliamentary day at my disposal, I thought that to raise the subject of people's local environment would be worth while. I am pleased that a number of my hon. Friends and other hon. Members are present to support my choice, and I look forward to hearing their contributions. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for his attendance and participation in the debate. He has achieved significant progress already in his time at the Department. Another reason why I thought that my choice of subject would be appropriate is that in the six days of debate on the Loyal Address the environment did not feature. The choice of subjects was a matter for the official Opposition, so in raising the subject today I am repairing their omission. I am giving the House an opportunity, at the start of a new Session, to debate the many important issues. The importance that the Government attach to the environment is demonstrated by the passage of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and the publication this year of the White Paper "This Common Inheritance." Its importance was underlined by our new Prime Minister who, speaking for the first time as premier outside No. 10 Downing street, referred to an "open society", and to the importance of "a better quality of life for all citizens."
An uncharacteristic lack of modesty on my part allows me to point out that his words echo some of mine in the motion, which was printed the day before he made that speech. That shows the unity of purpose and outlook that characterises the Conservative party--Front and Back Benches alike.
On that historic occasion, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister referred also to the general uplifting of standards that the people of this country have enjoyed over the past eleven and a half years. That cannot be taken for granted. There could not be a starker contrast than that between the benefits of private enterprise, free-market capitalism as embodied and personified by this country's Conservative Government and the prospect of starvation in the Soviet Union, where the socialist state system has held so much sway for the past 70 years. That situation is a cause for great concern, compassion and fellow feeling for our fellow human beings, but we should not allow that to blind us to the system that has brought the Russian people to that catastrophic pass. We have the luxury this morning of indulging in a debate on the quality of life, whereas mothers in Moscow are worried about life itself and whether they will have sufficient food to allow their young children to survive the winter. Let us be clear about the benefits of the society in which we live and the principles that activate our policies by comparison with state socialism.
Column 1111My motion is not so much a subject for debate as an agenda for action. It mentions a number of issues that I shall raise, but it does not pretend to be exclusive. No doubt it will be added to by my hon. Friends and others with issues that they consider important, but the motion does serve to highlight some of the principal concerns of the public, particularly in our towns and cities--and most notably of all in our capital of London, where I have the privilege of representing Romford, which is on the city's outer, eastern edge. Clean air and pure water have long been regarded as everyone's birthright, yet increasingly we see that even they cannot be taken for granted. Members of Parliament, and certainly myself, often find it difficult to point to any legislation that can irrefutably be said to have conferred benefits on the human race. I have always had the greatest confidence in pointing to the Clean Air Act 1956, which undoubtedly benefited the people of this country. It transformed the atmosphere in our cities and removed that Dickensian miasma of life-threatening industrial smog that was such a killer on many past occasions.
Even that achievement of the Government is now put at risk by the increasing freedom, brought about in turn by increasing prosperity, of people to own and drive their own cars, pumping poison into the atmosphere and polluting the street scene for millions. I will give credit where it is due to the Government as I progress through my speech, and I acknowledge that the differential price of lead-free petrol has produced a rapid increase in its use, and thus has significantly reduced the level of pollutants in the atmosphere. That is an example of the role that the Government can play--though as I shall make plain, I do not look to the Government for every contribution in achieving that which we would all like to see. However, in respect of lead-free petrol at least, Government action has proved beneficial and effective in a short time.
London Transport has made a major contribution by banning smoking on the underground. That action was forced upon it by public outrage at the loss of life in the King's Cross fire rather than by health considerations. It followed up that decision with the announcement the day before yesterday that smoking is also to be banned on London buses. That is good news for the 4 million passengers who use London Transport's fleet of 5,000 buses. It has the environmental advantage, as well as the health benefit, that the travelling public will no longer find themselves ankle-deep in cigarette cartons, Cellophane, fag ends and ash--all the detritus of modern pollution that much dismays visitors from other countries, where the public transport systems are often spotless.
London Transport has always suffered the handicap of being first in the field with its underground. Some of its stations and tunnels were constructed in the 19th century, but now it has the chance to come up to date and to run not only an efficient transport operation but one that looks as smart as the transit systems of other countries. One that comes to mind is Washington DC. A clean transport system will be a great asset to our city, and that is the kind of standard we should try to set.
I touch on a theme that will recur in this debate, in referring to the higher expenditure that better environmental standards will incur. However, that investment will be well worth while and advantageous. Self-interest will
Column 1112determine the need for high expenditure. It will not be an idealistic dream, but a matter of self-interest. The alternative will be a fall in traffic as people are turned off the idea of using public transport ; they will abandon it for other forms. We shall find ourselves in a vicious spiral, until the subway system becomes dirty and dangerous and a risk to all who use it. I pay tribute to London Transport for its courage in leading public opinion away from the belief that smoking is an embellishment to the atmosphere and in banning it completely from its transport systems.
There is certainly a need for greater investment in our water supplies and water industry. The River Thames, which flows past this place, was at one time a lethal ditch ; if one fell into it there was little point in being pulled out. Today, the Thames supports 60 varieties of fish. It is an attractive part of the townscape, which has encouraged the development of residential and commercial properties on both banks. That again proves that there is commercial self-interest in creating a pleasing environment. The Thames is once more worthy of the capital through which it flows.
The National Rivers Authority, which was created by the legislation to privatise the water industry, will be one of the strongest independent environmental protection agencies in Europe. We can look to the National Rivers Authority to maintain the quality of our waterways. We have never had any problems about private water in Romford because we have always had a private water supply, supplied by the Essex Water company. Having been the Member for that constituency for more than 16 years, I can testify that in all that time I have had to take up complaints with the water company on only four occasions. So I have every confidence in the private water industry. In the next 10 years it plans to invest no less than £28 billion--£5,000 a minute. That will do wonders for the quality of our water. By comparison with most other developed countries, British water is already of a high quality, but this investment is needed to ensure its continuing quality. The higher charges which will result from the need to finance such investment will be well worth while if it ensures the quality of such a vital contribution to life. The Government have taken action to safeguard marine waters around our coastline, and to reduce pollution of beaches. Swimming in the sea and bathing from our beaches never used to entail any risk to health, nor should it have done. However, it is now a source of disease and often of viral infection. Apparently, to be affected one does not need to ingest such infections as they can be absorbed through the skin. Therefore, it is imperative for us to clean up our act in that respect.
In 1987--the European Year of the Environment--the European Commission launched the blue flag beaches award scheme. At present we have 29 such beaches, but that is not nearly enough. We must give encouragement so that more reach the same high standard. I am confident that the planned huge investment in sewage treatment will achieve a much cleaner coastline environment.
Seaside resorts and coastal towns, depending as they do upon tourism for their livelihood, have an interest in being clean, tidy and healthy. But my motion is very much prompted by the squalor of our inland towns and the inner cities--notably London. Earlier in the year I went to Singapore, which is a small, highly successful and prosperous island state. Despite being a hive of economic activity, and having a limited amount of space, Singapore
Column 1113is like a garden suburb. The streets are clear of all litter and refuse. Traffic congestion is limited in the town centre, and the wide avenues, with well-planted shrubberies and grass verges, are immaculately kempt and are free from all rubbish. The contrast could hardly be more stark. For those who persist in the view that the east is synonymous with primitive living conditions and the west has more civilised standards, it comes as a shock to find that the reverse can be the case. One realises how far our standards have sunk in that respect when one returns to England and drives from Heathrow along our urban roads, which are strewn with every kind of rubbish, to Westminster.
My constituency of Romford, which is otherwise an agreeable place in which to live and work, has not escaped this modern decline. In recent years we have had a problem with litter in the town centre, to such an extent that the local paper, the Romford Recorder, has embarked upon a tidy town campaign. It persuaded the previous council to introduce "operation clean sweep" and new equipment to combat the rising tide of rubbish and filth in the town centre. It had some success, but the problem is unrelenting and fresh impetus is required. I look to the new council to carry on the good work and to bring Romford town centre up to the standard that it deserves if it is to continue to prosper.
There is a growing contrast between conditions within buildings and their external surroundings. I recently visited the social security offices in Romford and was most impressed by the high quality and comfort, by the well -furnished offices, the civilised surroundings awaiting visitors and the improved working conditions for staff. After my visit, I stepped outside the door and was appalled by the scene--refuse, dirt and degradation immediately outside the door of brand new offices. I should say that the rubbish had been there for months.
I welcome the introduction of the draft code of practice on litter and refuse by my right hon. Friends in the various Departments responsible because I believe that this scourge of modern life is now likely to be met by adequate measures. Public authorities are frequently among the worst offenders.
In Romford, it is a question of self-interest for people, especially traders, to endeavour to clean up their act. Romford has become a boom town in recent years, with growing developments of commercial and retail property. It attracts people from all over the area--from east London, Essex and even across the river in Kent. Romford has a wide range of shops to attract people, who can do all their shopping in one visit. However, shoppers will increasingly be put off because standards are not being maintained.
Romford now faces competition from other developments : a £350 million Lakeside development in Thurrock ; Eastgate in Basildon ; The Royals at Southend ; and the £100 million Exchange development in nearby Ilford. All those developments are imaginative and modern, and will prove irresistible to shoppers. Business will be lost to Romford unless we tackle the problem adequately, and ensure that our standards are as high as those anywhere else. Therefore, taking the required action is simply a matter of survival for the town's commercial livelihood. I shall be pleased to play an active part in supporting their efforts.
Many other towns suffer from the same blemish. I welcome the fact that the code tackles the problem of public authorities which allow their land to become an
Column 1114eyesore. I wish the code all success. I hope that it will receive prominence and will be put into effect forcefully, and as quickly as possible.
I have observed that, although many Conservative-controlled London boroughs have given priority to the question of the environment--for example, my former London borough home, Bromley, which was the first with its clean and green campaign--some Labour-controlled inner-city authorities, despite high expenditure, give low priority to street cleaning. I can only conclude that that is a deliberate party-political policy. By creating squalid conditions for their people, they are encouraging the sense of underclass which underpins their political support.
Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend) : That allegation needs to be refuted. I cannot speak for any particular inner London borough, but I remind the hon. Member that Sheffield, a Labour authority, is the recycling city of the United Kingdom. It is leading in this activity.
Mr. Griffiths : I am not denying that. Cardiff, again a Labour authority, is taking a similar position in Wales. It does not become the hon. Member, in a debate such as this, to pin a party-political label on the good and the bad. He will find both good and bad Labour and Conservative councils.
Mr. Neubert : I am open to reports that other cities under Labour control have done better, but I can judge only as I find. Being a Member of Parliament for a London constituency and working in London, I observe the street scene in London and can only notice the relative differences between Conservative and Labour authorities there. In London, the worst examples are Labour authorities. This cannot be for lack of money. It is simply that they have put a low priority on this activity. It is open to them to give it a higher priority if they wish to refute my allegation. I realise it was a serious and provocative allegation in what would otherwise be an all- party debate, but it was necessary to make it because it is simply not necessary for such squalor to continue in our inner cities. Living in the heart of one of our modern cities does not mean that people should have to endure the living conditions forced on them when local authorities do not carry out their duties.
Help is at hand. I have here a booklet containing a code of practice that will make it possible for lack of implementation of such policies to be challenged by individuals. An aggrieved citizen will be able to seek a litter abatement order and, given the increasing interest in the environment, I am sure that there will be no lack of aggrieved citizens ready to act. The code of practice lays down definitions of litter and will be innovative in two ways. First, it will define standards of cleanliness achievable in different types of locations--an important part of my motion. People who live in towns should not have to suffer a less attractive environment than people in the country or in more rural areas. The code sets a common universal standard for Britain as a whole.
Secondly, the code is concerned not with having a regular rota of cleaning and with how frequently streets are cleaned, but with the achievement of a level of cleanliness. In other words, if a street does not need to be
Column 1115cleaned so often, it should not be. Attention will be targeted on those streets that need continuous sweeping or cleaning. Expressed in its simplest terms, the code of practice says, "If it's not dirty, don't clean it." As I have explained, that is not the problem at the moment. I look to the code of practice, to which no doubt my hon. Friend the Minister will refer, for some help in dealing with the major problems of graffiti, litter and refuse in our streets. I shall pass quickly over how to reduce noise levels because the House recently had an opportunity to discuss this matter. However, my experience in politics and public life has shown me that noise is of utmost importance. I support the aims of the Noise Abatement Society. I wish success to anybody who aims at reducing noise.
Complementary to clearing our streets of litter and refuse is efficient waste management and recycling of material resources. The throwaway society has become a contemporary cliche , but people are now realising the folly of such a policy. Modern ways of over-packaging and over-presenting products cause people to be angry because not only is this wasteful, but it causes extra litter. Fast-food outlets are very much in sight here because people realise that fast-food containers threaten rain forests--it is as serious as that.
Efficient waste management is coming very much to the fore. I am glad to say that some local authorities--the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) may have some sterling examples--are active in this. He mentioned Sheffield, but I shall mention three Conservative authorities. East Sussex has developed a solid fuel that is waste derived, and that will greatly benefit the environment. It recycles six different products, and is very much to the fore in these matters. Test Valley has recently appointed a recycling officer and the money saved by recycling is going back to the community. That incentive should be encouraged. Devon county council has been designated a recycling county and it now recycles 10,000 tonnes of waste a year, which is about 2.5 per cent. of its total waste every year.
The Government have set the demanding target that, by the year 2000, 50 per cent. of recyclable household waste should be recycled. I shall be interested to hear how they are planning to achieve that. We must appreciate that these resources are valuable. For example, water, unmetered and unlimited at the tap, is a precious natural resource that should not be profligately used, as it has been, without thought for the future.
Mr. James Arbuthnot (Wanstead and Woodford) : My hon. Friend spoke of the code of practice and mentioned that it includes graffiti. I rushed out to get a copy of it. One of the things that concerns me in my constituency is that there is far too much graffiti, but I am not sure that the code of practice deals with graffiti in as much detail as I would like. I have leafed through the White Paper as carefully as I can, but I am not sure of the effect that it will have on graffiti. This is one of the most important issues in the environment of Wanstead and Woodford and probably in the constituency of my hon. Friend. Will he comment on it?
Column 1116but I have no doubt that my hon. Friend the Minister has heard what my hon. Friend has said and will comment on it later. I commend London Transport for its vigorous prosecution of the mindless vandals who destroy the appearance of so much of its rolling stock by spray-painted graffiti. The public should support it in every effort to remove this anti-social behaviour.
Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham) : Do not some of the recent prosecutions of people going in for this wholesale destructive painting of underground trains and other areas show that small groups of people manage to destroy much of the landscape? The vast majority of people are not involved and they disapprove, and they could help the authorities to police the underground by saying when they notice people spraying graffiti so that the vandals are caught before they make it look as though it is a widespread habit.
Mr. Neubert : Those are salutary words. I am pleased that I have the support of the House when I say that we must look to the public to support the action that the authorities are taking because this is a social question. It is a matter for peer groups. Parents and teachers must inculcate in children a concern for the environment and consideration for others. Some youngsters find spraying graffiti attractive, and this must be rigorously deterred.
To conclude my list of items for action, I intend to raise my head above the level of the gutter and the pavement and talk about that part of our environment that is represented by our stately homes and gardens. Our historic heritage is part of our life. With increasing leisure and mobility, people are able to enjoy a heritage that is unique to this country.
The National Trust has been one of the most remarkable success stories of the post-war years. Many millions of people have access to properties that are no longer exclusively accessible to the wealthy and the aristocracy. I am happy to say that I am a life member of the National Trust. I very much support all that it does to preserve our heritage.
The Historic Houses Association, under the presidency of the Earl of Shelburne, covers properties that are visited by no fewer than 11 million people a year. Those houses are owned and maintained by individuals at their own expense. The responsibility for looking after them can be ruinous. Apart from natural disasters, such as the 1987 storms and those that we suffered earlier this year, regular repair and maintenance can be extremely expensive, particularly because of the need to use appropriate materials and techniques. Some of the owners have found the costs too hard to bear ; they have been beyond their resources. During the past 10 years, 250 properties have been sold. That is no surprise, but it is a matter for regret. In the main, those properties will probably no longer be open to the public, or even be used as residences, for which purpose they were designed and built.
Some owners have established maintenance funds. They provide the owners with no direct personal benefit. The funds have been established to finance restoration and repair and to improve visitor facilities. Nevertheless, the income from the funds is taxed at 35 per cent. The Historic Houses Association believes that to be a deterrent to the maintenance of this part of our heritage. Moreover, if
Column 1117owners sell works of art for this purpose, they have to pay the full capital gains tax. Value added tax also has to be paid on repair and maintenance work.
A country confident of itself and concerned to maintain its heritage should be alarmed about such a trend and ought to seek to arrest it. Other countries make major tax concessions for this purpose. Although this may not be a popular theme on Conservative Benches, given our unique heritage I believe that the Government ought to be prepared to do more to help the owners of these properties. The Government may believe that the owners ought to look after them, but that is unrealistic. The owners recognise the public value their houses and believe that the Government ought to make a contribution towards their upkeep. A balance has to be struck. The Government have provided help in the past, but there is scope for further Government help. As prosperity increases, more and more people will want to visit these houses.
There are many other aspects of the environment to which I could draw the attention of the House. The Government's role ought to be limited to implementing the minimum amount of regulation. They should also encourage the education of young people about the importance of the environment. Environmental policy is a subject in the new national curriculum. Like so much else, however, it comes back to the individual. It starts in the home and continues in school. Parents and teachers need to work in partnership to bring about greater awareness of the need not to foul our own nest but to maintain a pleasant, attractive and healthy environment.
There may be a need for even stricter regulation. There is a hint of autocracy in Singapore. I should not be averse to the introduction of a regulation that requires property owners to be responsible for the appearance of their property and even for the pavement in front of it. It is all a question of discipline and good order. Evidence of health hazards has shocked us into taking action. They have made us more aware of the importance of the environment. It is not just a question, however, of safety or health considerations, or even of legal requirements. An attractive, well-ordered and tidy environment is part of our birthright and part of our responsibility as members of the community. We should all endeavour to play our full part. 10.14 am
Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Neubert) on his good luck in winning first place in the ballot and even more on his choice of subject. I thank him for giving the House this opportunity to debate the wide range of issues that he included, helpfully, in his motion. My hon. Friends and I were fascinated to hear of his experience when travelling from what he thought was the civilised west to the less civilised east but finding standards in Singapore which, constrasted with what he found when he returned to Heathrow, were much higher, thus leading to his belief that the balance was in favour of the east.
What interests my hon. Friends and I is that this is not just a matter of hemispheres, of east versus west, or of the east compared with the west. It just so happens that what the hon. Gentleman left in the east was a socialist society and that he returned to a conservative society when he landed at Heathrow. Therefore, we welcome his example. We understand the problems that he faces in Romford.
Column 1118The poll tax and the other policies and philosophies that he so ardently supports have led to much of the dirt, muck and mire that we see in our streets, because local authorities have had either to contract out their cleansing services or to cut them. We are most grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He has told us about two experiences that we shall certainly note and quote on future occasions. I assure him that he will get full attribution when we do so.
I shall concentrate on the gulf between declared Government attitudes on green issues and Government decisions, and I shall give three examples from my experience. The first is a general point ; the others are specific. They demonstrate that an important change is taking place because of the loss of control over the local environment by the local community and its switch to central Government. Increasingly, ministerial administrative diktat, without reference to the House of Commons, can overrule the rights of the public, local control and local environmental considerations. The first general change was made by the right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley). Among a series of disastrous decisions--one of which is the abomination of a tower that one has to look at across the Thames--he made a very important administrative decision that did not need the approval of the House of Commons. He said that, in future, the presumption in planning applications would be switched in favour of the developer, the applicant. We live under a regime where it is presumed that land is suitable to be developed, unless those who oppose the development can prove that there is good reason why it would not take place.
That change did not attract the attention that it deserved. It massively switched the balance of advantage from the local community and those who protect the environment to profit-seeking, often parasitic, developers who have only one interest--to make a quick buck and then to withdraw from the area, leaving local people to live with the consequences of their greed.
Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams) : The presumption is in the process of being changed. The right hon. Gentleman is therefore no longer correct, because an application must be considered according to the current structure plan and local plan. Under a current local plan, there will no longer be a presumption in favour of building, but if the proposal is outside the local plan the presumption will be against all development.
Mr. Williams : I shall give an example of a Minister doing the opposite under a local plan. I am glad to receive the hon. Gentleman's endorsement of the sanctity of the local plan. The hon. Gentleman says that the system will change. I am delighted to hear it, but why is it not changing now? Such a change needs not legislation but a Minister to issue guidance, and the emphasis would be switched back to the local community. If the Government believe that a change is necessary in a week's time, it is necessary now. I hope that it will be announced that as from today the balance has been restored to the local community. Councils are increasingly reluctant to refuse marginal planning applications. They fear that, because of the prejudgment of the Department, appeals will go against them and they will have to pay the applicant's costs for counsel, architects and so on.
That change weakened the protective function of local authorities and was an important alteration to the
Column 1119framework. If the Government will now admit that it was a mistake, I should be the first to applaud that admission and to welcome an urgent change in the guidance given to local authorities. In many ways, the second problem is far more important constitutionally. Ministers exercise an Executive function and, because of their role in Departments, a quasi-judicial function. The Secretaries of State for the Environment, for Scotland and for Wales make decisions on planning applications.
Let me demonstrate a new and invidous situation that is dangerous constitutionally. It cannot be challanged in the courts or it would have been, but it has shades of Crichel Down and it worries me when I see this clear confusion of functions within Departments. West Glamorgan health authority had about 12 acres of land, much of which was being used for allotments. The Welsh Office issued a circular stating that health authorities had to dispose of any land surplus to their requirements at the best possible realisable value. In other words, they had to get the best added value. The same circular said that this would normally mean applying for planning consent for the land. If it was refused, they were told to appeal to the Welsh Office, which had issued the circular telling them to sell the land. What chance did my constituents have? Allotment holders, who had been there many years, waged a campaign on behalf of the whole community to keep this green wedge in the heart of a built-up section of Swansea. All the residents in the area, the local authorities, the city and the county opposed it. To their credit, the protests continued for a long time, but--surprise, surprise--eventually the health authority, in keeping with the circular, appealed to the Welsh Office.
It does not take much imagination for hon. Members to guess the outcome of the appeal. But where is the quasi-judicial independence? At some time, every hon. Member present has written to a Minister about planning and has received a reply saying, "I note the points that you make, but I cannot comment on them because in the event of an appeal I exercise a quasi- judicial role." We all know that it is the constitutional reality, but that independence is distorted by the Department telling authorities not only to sell land but to apply for planning consent and to appeal to the same impartial Minister if it is refused.
Hon. Members will gather that I do not regard the Welsh Office as the most competent administrative centre in Whitehall. In England, as far as I can gather--the Minister's office was most helpful in trying to get information for me at short notice--there has been one instance of an education authority being told that it must sell land that had been preserved for school use. That had never happened in Wales, but within days of taking office the Secretary of State for Wales issued such a directive to West Glamorgan county council. It was opposed by local residents, even local Conservative councillors, the county and the city, and petitions were handed in. The Secretary of State admitted in a parliamentary answer that he had received only one representation in favour of it, two and a half years ago, from a developer outside Swansea. The then Secretary of State wisely sat on it for two and a half years. In a letter, the developer said that the land was needed for development and to create building jobs in Swansea.
Column 1120In the two and a half years since that application was made--this touches on the point of the hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen)--more than 400 building plots have been released on planning consent in west Swansea. Most of them are still empty--so much for job creation--because developers are unable to go ahead with the released plots. The Land Authority for Wales has even said that more plots are not needed in that part of Swansea.
Almost two years after the initial application, the local plan was approved in April. In that plan the site was marked clearly for future school development. The builder who had originally applied for use of that site, however, did not appeal against the local plan. Given that the Welsh Office considered that the site should be used for residential rather than school development it did not make any such suggestion during the consultative period on the local plan. At the very time when there could have been a proper inquiry and democratic discussion about the local plan and the allocation of the land, the Welsh Office and the developer kept their heads down and said nothing.
In July, just three months after the local plan was approved, the Welsh Office turned round and issued a directive to the West Glamorgan education authority to sell the six acres. The Welsh Office has imposed a deadline of 22 December on the education authority, after which the Welsh Office will enforce its decision.
The local authority, however, will turn down any application for the residential use of the site as it is clearly marked in the local plan for school use and as such it is desperately needed. It will do so on the basis of the local plan approved and lodged with the Welsh Office in April. Subsequently, an appeal will be made to the Welsh office and the Secretary of State will put on his judicial wig--in that respect his need is not as great as mine. The Secretary of State, having told the local education authority that the land must be sold, will then purport to make an impartial judicial decision on the planning application. That application does not command the support of the local people ; only one supporting representation has been made and it comes from outside the area. The dangerous thing is that the Secretary of State is not just judge and jury, but prosecutor, too. In fact, in terms of Swansea, he is seen as the villain, the prosecutor and judge and jury. He is not exactly popular, as I am sure hon. Members will understand.
When the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Neubert) was at the Ministry of Defence I had many courteous and helpful discussions with him, but I regret to say that the MOD is also disposed to use administrative diktats to override local opinion. The House will be beginning to assume that Swansea is suffering from a persecution complex, but a recent decision of the MOD may have a serious environmental impact on the area.
We were all astonished at the recent press reports about a £100 million refit of a nuclear submarine which was suddenly decommissioned. However, Swansea has just had a new status conferred on it by the MOD. It has decided that that city is to have a Z-berth--a berth for a nuclear submarine. No chance was given for a sensible discussion of that decision ; the Ministry just announced it. To be fair, that does not mean that the Minister of State for the Armed Forces reached his decision without reference to outside advice. He put that suggestion to a committee. That nameless, faceless committee--anonymous for security reasons--consists of 23 members.
Column 1121Seventeen members are either former military staff, former MOD staff or existing MOD officials. The odds are slightly in the Minister's favour, particularly as I gather that the other half dozen committee members are almost certainly representatives from the nuclear industry.
Public opinion appears not to count and the only check on the MOD decision is a committee appointed by the Minister, largely staffed by his men. The MOD has been challenged about that, but it states that it always follows its advice. That is hardly surprising given that the advisory committee is made up of the Minister's own men. They consider the proposition and it is not subject to any democratic appeal or meaningful representation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) and I welcomed a deputation who came up from Swansea with a petition about the decision. The Minister refused to see them, so they went with us to the MOD where we intended to hand in the petition. At the MOD the Minister had the cheek to send down a message to say that he would see the two hon. Members, but not the people who brought the petition. Not surprisingly we told him that we could do without that type of meeting.
Swansea docks are in the heart of the community and they represent the dividing line between the two Swansea constituencies. A nuclear reactor is now to be stationed in those docks. One does not want to be theatrical about it, but it is hard not to be when the MOD is decommissioning its nuclear submarines as fast as it can. Given that it wrote off overnight a £100 million refit because of faults with the reactor, one is left with the suspicion that something must be wrong.
What rights do we have in Swansea to oppose the MOD decision? Absolutely none. All that we get are assurances from the Minister of State for the Armed Forces that, in his opinion, the reactor is safe. If it is that safe, he should have it in his constituency. The city council, the county council, the citizens of Swansea and my hon. Friend and I do not want it, but the Z-berth will be imposed on us. The Government are willing to write off £100 million, but what assurances are we given about protecting the environment? We have been told that there will be a 550 m security zone.
Mr. Arbuthnot : My hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Neubert) will not make the point for himself, but I assure the right hon. Gentleman that Romford is not a suitable place to berth nuclear submarines.
Mr. Williams : I would not want the nuclear submarine to get lost in the sea of rubbish which it would encounter if it tried to go down Romford high street. The hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Arbuthnot) was gallantly trying to protect his hon. Friend, but he had no need to because I was not attacking him. I was attacking the present Minister of State for the Armed Forces.
Mr. Williams : If the Minister tried for either of the Swansea constituencies, he would not be elected. Perhaps he can afford to be so insensitive about the issue because his constituency is not affected. As a former Parliamentary Private Secretary to an ex-Prime Minister, the Minister knows his way round Whitehall and he should understand
Column 1122the way in which the system works. I was not attacking the hon. Member for Romford, who gave me the opportunity to make this speech. I gave three examples : of a hospital site, of a school site and of a decision about a nuclear submarine berth. I have tried to show that Ministers may make the right sounds on environmental matters, but that their actions and decisions belie their green pretensions. 10.40 am
Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham) : I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Neubert) for giving the House the chance to discuss this important subject. No one but he could do justice to the whole range of issues, and I congratulate him on the way in which he canvassed the various subjects to which other hon. Members will want to return. Some hon. Members have long-term interests in some of the subjects. My hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen)--I am pleased to see that he has flown in--has been dealing with derelict land for many years. He shows that continuity of interest which is so important, and the House is grateful that he has been able to adjust his diary to be here today.
The right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) has given us some interesting ideas. Epsom and Ewell is not a nuclear-free zone, but one must remember that submarines tend to go by water and not by land. No one could accuse Conservative Ministers of a NIMBY syndrome on such issues. The House will remember that Lord Pym, when he was a Member of this House, agreed to medium-range missiles being based in his own constituency. Such toughness has led to some of the changes in eastern Europe to which my hon. Friend the Member for Romford referred.
It is only when we allow the media to see what is happening in different countries that we discover what an environmental disaster state socialism has been. It has also been an economic disaster for the people and a military disaster.
I want to raise some important environmental issues in my own constituency of Eltham. That area is well known to my hon. Friend the Member for Romford because, early in his 40 years of distinguished service to the community, he was the youngest mayor of Bromley. At that time he would occasionally have driven into London through my constituency and, for all I know, he may still go through it on his way to east London.
He will have noticed that there has been an environmental improvement for 21,000 of my constituents as a result of the building of the Rochester way relief road. I am grateful to the Rees Jeffries Road Fund for funding an appraisal of the operational, environmental and economic impact of that important road. As many hon. Members will know, the A2 goes through the middle of my constituency, which lies in the southern part of the borough of Greenwich. The road has had traffic jams since 1381 when Wat Tyler came up from Canterbury with his band of friends. He was held up at the Well Hall roundabout for four hours and had to camp overnight on Blackheath so that the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) could give an annual address on the back of a flat-top lorry.
It is worth noting that the missing three miles of road between Falconwood to the east and the Blackwall tunnel approach to the west had been a planning disgrace, an
Column 1123environmental disgrace and a transport disgrace. For 40 years, there had been a gap and the reason was that, traditionally, my constituency has been a marginal seat.
It was felt that building a necessary bit of road might swing the votes of 200 people, which could decide whether there was a Tory or a Labour Member of Parliament. That in turn could decide whether there was a Tory or Labour Government and that could decide whether we made progress in the European Community, depending on which side of the fence the Labour party was sitting in a particular year when an election might take place. The missing road was being held hostage for the political fortunes of the country.
Fortunately, there were some local people who were willing to fight. In 1974, when I was first adopted as a prospective parliamentary candidate, I began to go for walks with mothers with prams along the Rochester way at 5 pm on a Friday. We had a police escort and, of course, if the police had told us not to do it, we would not have done it. We were a law-abiding community group and, as a Conservative Member, I would not dream of getting involved in some of the ludicrous arguments that we noticed this morning on television when we heard the results of the Paisley by-elections. The Labour party and the Scottish National party were discussing whether to break the law.
We believe that the law should be obeyed and we are grateful that the present leader of the Opposition agrees. I wish that he would say so to Councillor MacParland, a Labour councillor on Greenwich council, who is the prime organiser of the Greenwich campaign against the poll tax. Let us begin to see some steel and determination from the Labour leader even if he is at risk of being replaced by the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith).
From 1974 to 1978, we had great difficulty with the local council, which was Labour controlled. However, I agree with other hon. Members that we should be as non-partisan as possible today. I give the council its political label for those who will read the report of the debate later. It was only in 1978 that Greenwich council realised that the people of Eltham were keen to have the road. The council needed a fig leaf to cover its change of policy. It asked the Greater London council to carry out an assessment of the environmental impact of a new road and to see what damage the old road was doing. The three-mile stretch of poor road was adversely affecting 25,000 people. The economic analysis showed that the new road would not quite pay in cost-benefit terms, but the reason for building it was the environmental improvement for local people. At Deansfield school, on the old road, children were exposed not only to the traffic dangers of 42,000 vehicles a day going past, but to the lead, to the fumes, to the smog, to the smoke and to all the poisons that are part of the cost of our present motor engine.
I look forward to two developments. In the long term, I look forward to the development of the electric engine for shorter journeys of up to about 50 miles. Being able to use cars that are pollutant-free as they go through the areas in which people live will be an important development.
In the shorter term, I hope that many more people will switch to lead-free fuel. It is good that my hon. Friend the