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House of Commons

Wednesday 19 February 1992

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker -- in the Chair ]


Aberdeen Harbour Order Confirmation Bill

Mr. Secretary Lang presented a Bill to confirm a Provisional Order under section 7 of the Private Legislation Procedure (Scotland) Act 1936, relating to Strathclyde Regional Council : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be considered on Tuesday next and to be printed. [Bill 83.]

Oral Answers to Questions


Domestic Rates

1. Mr. Butler : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment how many representations he has had on the subject of domestic rates ; and if he will make a statement.

The Minister for Local Government and Inner Cities (Mr. Michael Portillo) : I receive very few such representations. The overwhelminmajority of taxpayers have no wish to see the reintroduction of unfair domestic rates.

Mr. Butler : Does my hon. Friend agree that domestic rates were especially unfair to single people, and will he reassure the House that he, at least, has no intention of returning to a system that discriminated against many pensioners?

Mr. Portillo : My hon. Friend is right. It is extraordinary that the Labour party is planning that widows, for example, should enjoy no discount over households full of wage earners. It is incredible that the Labour party proposes that there should be no limit on the tax that a widow would pay on the house in which she has lived all her life. It is incredible also that the Labour party proposes for a widow four different intrusive valuations of her house, and proposes, too, that that same widow should be penalised with higher taxation if she has made improvements to her property. That is Labour party policy, and I shall have nothing to do with it.

Mr. John Evans : Does the Minister acknowledge that when we had a domestic rating system almost every citizen in the land made sure that he or she registered to vote? Will he now confirm that one side effect of the appalling poll tax is that more than a million citizens of this country have not registered to vote? Will he mount a campaign to ensure

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that every citizen in the land registers for a vote--especially so that those votes can be cast in the general election?

Mr. Portillo : I know that the Labour party thinks that it has lost the election, and is looking for an excuse. That is what is known as a pre- emptive whinge. If anybody has given up his right to vote, in the misguided intention of not paying his taxes, he will get no sympathy from the public- -and more fool he, for listening to the Labour Members of Parliament who urged people not to pay their community charge.

Sir Rhodes Boyson : Is my hon. Friend aware that in my constituency the majority of people infinitely prefer the council tax to Labour's alternative--the so-called fair rates, which are nothing but a return to the dreaded rating system that we had before, and which was especially hated in the south of England?

Mr. Portillo : My right hon. Friend's constituents were often paying £2,000 on their houses, whether or not they could afford it, and whether or not they were widows or pensioners. Who could possibly advocate returning to such an unfair system? Labour is the only party which could advocate that.

Mr. Alton : If fairness is to be the criterion, does the Minister agree that it is fundamentally unjust that people should be expected to pay twice--that people should be surcharged in cities such as Liverpool, where last year the cost was £71 per head, after people had already paid their bills? Next year it could cost £2 extra a week--£100 per head--to pay for people who have refused to pay their poll tax? Does the Minister agree that that--and the practice of sending vexatious summonses to people who have paid their bills, and who are being forced to pay £12 a head for the privilege of receiving such a summons--must be altered if people are to have any confidence in the system?

Mr. Portillo : It is terrible that people are being made to pay for the non-payers. That is why there will be no amnesty, and those people will be pursued until the moment that they pay up. It is surprising that some people in Liverpool chose not to pay their community charge, when they were urged not to do so by Labour Members of Parliament? One Member of Parliament there was actually sent to prison for non-payment. Is it any surprise that some people took that example and ran up horrendous debts? There will still be no amnesty.


2. Mrs. Maureen Hicks : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment when he expects to make an announcement on a national scheme for the conversion of council rents to mortgages.

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Sir George Young) : My right hon. Friend is considering a statutory rents-to-mortgages scheme in the light of the results of the pilot schemes in Basildon and Milton Keynes.

Mrs. Hicks : Is my hon. Friend aware that since 1980, 10,075 council tenants in Wolverhampton have become the proud owners of their council houses? Does he recognise that many people want to be proud owners, but cannot afford to buy their council homes outright? They would warmly welcome the opportunity, which they hope

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that the Government will give them, of being able to convert their rents to mortgages. I ask my hon. Friend, please, to give us that opportunity as soon as possible. When he does so, I hope that he will ensure that he legislates to ensure that Labour cannot operate delaying tactics as they have in Wolverhampton. Labour does not want people to own their own homes.

Sir George Young : My hon. Friend rightly draws attention to her many constituents who are now home owners and thus have the privilege of owning their own homes--a right which would have been denied them if we had listened to the advice of Opposition Members. If we decide to extend the rents-to-mortgages scheme and to make it nationwide, we shall take steps to ensure that no recalcitrant local authority can deny people rights that have been given to them by the House.

Mr. Winnick : Is the Minister aware that a number of people in the west midlands and elsewhere who took the opportunity of buying their accommodation now find that their homes have been repossessed as a direct result of Government economic policy? The essential need in housing is to provide far more rented accommodation. Before the Minister gives us, once again, the sterile old argument about the number of empty council properties, I point out that the number of empty council properties is far fewer than the number of empty properties owned by the Government.

Sir George Young : No one in temporary accommodation who sees empty and unused local authority accommodation thinks that that is a sterile argument. On the first point, local authority tenants who bought their homes are among those least likely to have been repossessed. They tend to be people who are used to making regular weekly payments and they have a substantial equity in their homes because of discounts. They are not a significant element among those who have been repossessed. We shall continue to put pressure on local authorities with stock that has been empty for more than a year. We shall persuade them to bring it back into use for the benefit of those in temporary accommodation.

Mr. Hind : My hon. Friend will be aware that I have often urged him to follow the Basildon project with the Skelmersdale project. Skelmersdale is a new town with many former council houses which would be ideal for conversion from rents to mortgages. When he considers his share of the Conservative party manifesto, will my hon. Friend give a promise to my Skelmersdale council tenants that they will be able to purchase their houses under such a scheme in the future?

Sir George Young : We are, indeed, reflecting on precisely that proposition. We believe that the tenants about whom my hon. Friend has spoken are responsible people who are capable of taking a mature decision. I was appalled to see that the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) referred to the rents-to-mortgage scheme as a "facile and short-term measure". That is a patronising approach which would deny widening choice to many local authority tenants.

Mr. Soley : Is not the reality that the scheme is an enormous flop? Is not it true that throughout the United Kingdom, only about 100 such cases have been pursued despite the enormous amount which the Government have

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put into advocating the scheme? Is not the reality that there is a far greater interest at present in a mortgages-to- rents scheme? Does the Minister agree with the figure given by the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the Dispatch Box when he told us that there would be 40, 000 mortgage rescues this year? If the Minister does not agree with that figure, will he tell us how long it will take to introduce any rescue schemes? Are we talking about months or years?

Sir George Young : As to the rents-to-mortgages scheme, 568 people in Milton Keynes and Basildon applied to buy their home under the scheme ; and 100 applicants have switched to the right-to-buy scheme. They would not share the hon. Gentleman's view. Labour adopts a dogmatic approach to the rents-to-mortgages scheme, as it did to the right to buy and will abandon it in the same way.

Mr. Dunn : Does my hon. Friend accept my view that the Labour party would really like tied workers living in tied cottages? Will he confirm that tenants who decide to buy under the provisions of the rents-to- mortgages scheme will pay little more than they do in rent?

Sir George Young : My hon. Friend is right. They would pay exactly the same under the rents-to-mortgages scheme as they currently pay in rent- -but they would be acquiring their homes, rather than simply being tenants. I could do no better than use the graphic terms in which my hon. Friend described Labour's position. It has a paternalistic approach to local authority tenants. We seek to enfranchise them.

Environmental Protection Act 1990

4. Mr. Alan W. Williams : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the progress being made in implementing the Environmental Protection Act 1990.

The Minister for the Environment and Countryside (Mr. David Trippier) : The Environmental Protection Act 1990 has already led tosignificant improvements in national pollution control, waste disposal, the control of litter and the reorganisation of bodies responsible for the countryside. Progress in all areas is continuing on schedule.

Mr. Williams : Will the Minister confirm that Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution has so far achieved just six prosecutions under integrated pollution control and the 1990 Act? The Minister will remember that in Committee, he regularly boasted about how powerful a piece of legislation the Bill was--saying that it was the most far-reaching legislation in Europe, and so on. After 13 years of Conservative government, it is the only environment Act that we have. It is flimsy legislation. No money was committed to it, only six prosecutions have been brought and fines imposed to date amount to only £13,000. Is not that the true measure of the Act and of the Government's lack of commitment to the environment?

Mr. Trippier : When the hon. Gentleman sat on the Standing Committee on the Bill he did not vote on any single occasion against the precise measures to which he now refers. There is a major difference between the hon. Gentleman and myself as to whether prosecutions are an

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agency's proof of success. I maintain that the principal force of the 1990 Act is the deterrents that it introduced. Prosecutions are the mark of the failure of a policy, not of its success. The hon. Gentleman has a ghoulish thirst for blood--except, of course, the sight of his own.

Mr. Squire : Is not my hon. Friend a little surprised that the Opposition seek to raise that point, given that the 1990 Act and other measures demonstrate that every major environmental initiative this century has been implemented by a Conservative Government? Will my hon. Friend emphasise that Labour's only policy on air pollution is to abolish nuclear power and replace it with coal-fired power--the net consequence of which could be only a massive increase in global warming?

Mr. Trippier : My hon. Friend is right. On his last point, Labour has manifestly failed to square the circle. While it has a policy such as that to which my hon. Friend referred, it cannot convince the House or anyone else that it is serious about stabilising and reducing carbon dioxide levels. My hon. Friend's first point is valid. Conservative Governments have been responsible for all major environmental legislation. An Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), said at Labour's party conference that Labour introduced the Clean Air Act 1956. It did not. That legislation was introduced by a Conservative Government.

Mr. Win Griffiths : Will the Minister explain why, if the Environmental Protection Act 1990 is so wonderful, the Government are being dragged to the European Court for failing to comply with Community legislation on water standards and air pollution control? Is it not a fact that, for all their fine words, the Government's deeds are desperately poor and that the country is looking forward to a change of Government in a month?

Mr. Trippier : The hon. Gentleman always comes to the House badly briefed. Nothing in the Environmental Protection Act 1990 relates to the European directives to which his question refers. Every member state has either received article 169 letters or is, according to the Commission, in breach of European directives. The case being considered during the next few weeks will be the first alleged breach of an environment directive by this Government in 20 years' membership of the European Community--and I am proud of that.

Empty Council Properties

5. Mr. David Evans : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what is the latest figure for the number of council properties left empty by the 10 councils with the most such properties.

Sir George Young : In the latest housing investment programme returns, the 10 councils reporting the highest percentage of their council house stock empty on 1 April 1991 were Liverpool--[ Hon. Members :-- "Labour."]--with 5,733 dwellings ; Manchester--[ Hon. Members :-- "Labour."]--with 6,042 ; Salford--[ Hon. Members :-- "Labour."]- -with 2,292 ; Burnley, 372 ; Brent--[ Hon. Members :-- "Tory."]-- 937, but Brent has no overall control ; Hackney, 1,998 ; Tower Hamlets, 1,895 ; Knowsley, 1,037 ; Newcastle upon Tyne, 1,886 ; and Wolverhampton, 1,347.

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Mr. Evans : I thank my hon. Friend for those revealing figures, and congratulate him on all his efforts to rehouse the homeless. Is that not in stark contrast to Labour Members who trade on the squalor and misery of people who are not housed? Their friends in the town halls keep people out of homes and use them to trade and to get cheap votes. When will the Opposition tell Labour councils to open those houses, and get the homeless off the streets and into the empty dwellings that those Labour authorities control?

Sir George Young : There is-- [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker : Order. Could hon. Members calm down.

Sir George Young : There is no way in which I can match my hon. Friend's colourful eloquence. He rightly points out that--apart from Brent, which has no overall control, and Tower Hamlets, which is controlled by the Liberal Democrats--the 10 authorities with the highest percentage of empties in their stock are Labour controlled, and about 20,000 properties have been left empty for more than a year. That is an affront to people in temporary accommodation and in housing stress. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to that. We must reflect on whether further measures might be needed to put extra pressure on authorities to bring properties back into use.

Mr. Tony Banks : Instead of trying to score cheap points-- [Interruption.] --no hon. Member would defend any situation where empty properties are kept unnecessarily empty. We know the Minister to be a reasonable man. Why does he not call in the authorities that he mentioned-- there are others--to identify the problems that confront them and which lead to properties being left empty when clearly, a large number of people are waiting to be housed?

Sir George Young : We are not after cheap points, but cheap accommodation. The hon. Gentleman knows that many local authorities could use quicker reletting procedures and faster procedures for the repair and maintenance of properties to reduce the gap between one tenant leaving and another moving in.

The Audit Commission has said that if all authorities did as well as the average, significant reductions could be made in the number of families living in temporary accommodation. Many of the voids are in that category not because of a shortage of resources, but because of weak and poor management. I hope that Opposition Members will use their influence with Labour-controlled councils to improve their performance and so put many more such properties back into use.

Mrs. Gorman : Is my hon. Friend aware of the disgraceful record of Basildon council, which covers part of my constituency, on reletting properties? Is he further aware of the bribe that that council is offering to its tenants in the form of a rent freeze to try to dissuade them from opting for new landlords in Commission for New Towns and council house properties? Will he assure me that he will look into that matter, because Basildon council is simply trying to bribe its tenants before the election?

Sir George Young : I am sure that the residents of Basildon will see straight through any transparent attempt to buy their votes. Many local authorities, including Basildon, could do better. As I have already said, we will

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see whether any further measures are necessary to reduce the number of properties left empty by local authorities. It is a scandal.

Mr. George Howarth : When will the Minister own up to the fact that the biggest offender in terms of empty property is his Government, who have 31,000 empty properties throughout the country? Instead of all this fake indignation, when will he own up to the fact that most of the local authorities, including my own of Knowsley, have empty properties because they are being held for improvement under schemes in which the Government are involved after 13 years in which they have neglected to fund local authority and other housing stock? When will the Minister admit that it is him and his Government who are responsible for all the problems, including the appalling homelessness that is subsequently caused?

Sir George Young : Most Government property is owned by the Ministry of Defence which is bringing back families from Germany and other parts of the world and those properties are needed for them. There is no way in which one can compare properties built by the MOD for service men with the scandalous performance of a number of local authorities. Such comparison cannot justify that performance--nothing can justify leaving 20,000 properties empty for more than a year. There is no advantage to be gained by Opposition Members seeking to defend the indefensible.

Council House Sales

6. Mr. Ian Bruce : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the availability of council house sales' receipts to repay debt and to provide additional houses to rent.

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Michael Heseltine) : At 1 April 1991, local authorities had unspent housing capital receipts of £700 million. In addition they held approximately £5.1 billion from all capital receipts and set-aside as provision for debt repayment under the new capital finance system. Since 1985-86 alone, total capital public expenditure on social housing provision has been £18.3 billion.

Mr. Bruce : I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I wonder whether a new radical approach should be taken to the receipts from council house sales. Should councils be asked to relieve the public sector borrowing requirement of that burden of long-term debt by transferring it and their balances to housing associations? In that way housing associations could immediately buy up many of the surplus properties that are currently available on the housing market. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that would provide low-cost homes, a welcome boost to the housing market and reduce housing benefits?

Mr. Heseltine : My hon. Friend's heart is in the right place, but I do not believe that his precise proposal would have the effect that he has in mind. Because of the flow of capital receipts we have been able to increase the cash spent on social housing, not least through the agency to which my hon. Friend referred, the Housing Corporation, whose budget is shortly to rise to £2 billion a year.

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Mr. Nellist : Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that if the principle that the Government applied in cancelling £14.5 billion worth of debt for all nationalised industries before privatisation were applied to local authorities, there would be little debt left to repay ? If he is really concerned to increase the number of homes available to rent, why will he not recognise that of the 700,000 empty properties, 100,000 are in the council sector and 600,000 are privately owned ? Why not deal with the beam instead of for ever going on about the mote ?

Mr. Hesletine : The hon. Gentleman raises the important issue of the privately rented sector. It is probably true to say that his party did more decade after decade to destroy the availability of properties in the private rented sector--to the impoverishment of some of the most needy sectors of society.

Area Cost Adjustment

7. Mr. Pawsey : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will consider the abolition of the area cost adjustment.

Mr. Portillo : It is important that standard spending assessments should recognise that pay and the costs of recruiting and retaining staff are substantially higher in some areas than in others. That is the purpose of the area cost adjustment.

Mr. Pawsey : My hon. Friend will be aware that there is much disquiet in Warwickshire and elsewhere about the standard spending assessment and the result of the revenue support grant-- [Interruption.] At least I get support on some occasions from Labour Members. The area cost adjustment exacerbates that position. My hon. Friend will also be aware that a number of counties are now calling for the abolition of the area cost adjustment. Will he give careful consideration to the possibility of abolishing that unneeded and unnecessary measure ?

Mr. Portillo : I do not think it would be reasonable to pretend that the cost of paying people, recruiting them and retaining them is the same in the south-east as in other parts of the United Kingdom. It would be unfair to pretend that, but I do not want my hon. Friend to be carried away by the importance of it. In a county such as Hampshire, recognising the extra costs, we give an extra 5 per cent. for teachers' pay, so the differential between Hampshire and my hon. Friend's county is only 5 per cent.

Mr. Flynn : A consequence of the area cost adjustment is to elevate finance to be the supreme consideration. Is the Minister aware that part of the result is that in my constituency today 14 classrooms have been closed in Bassaleg school? Parents were told last night that their children should not come to school due to the appalling standard of cleanliness resulting from the employment of contract cleaners. That state of affairs never occurred under the previous system. What do the Government intend to do about it?

Mr. Portillo : Not only have we enormously increased the standard to which schools and public buildings are cleaned, as a result of compulsory competitive tendering, but we have saved ratepayers and community charge payers huge amounts of money. It is disgraceful that the Labour party, in hock to the trade unions, is now

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threatening to sweep away compulsory competitive tendering, irrespective of the cost and the effect on services to the customer.

Noise Pollution

8. Mr. Bowis : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will bring forward further measures to assist the police, local authorities and individuals in combating noise pollution.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Tony Baldry) : My Department commissioned an independent review of noise control policy in 1990 and has already taken action on more than half the recommendations.

Mr. Bowis : Does my hon. Friend agree that a curse of modern urban living is musical mega-decibels in the night? Hitherto, police and local authorities thought that they did not have power to deal with it adequately. Now that it has been shown in Liverpool that there are powers to confiscate offending equipment--as there always have been in Scotland-- may I ask my hon. Friend to draw those powers to the attention of local authorities--and, through the Home Office, the police--so that the public may be protected from this menace?

Mr. Baldry : There has been considerable comment in recent months about the need for environmental health officers to have power temporarily to remove equipment. We have advised environmental health officers that they already have power under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 temporarily to remove equipment such as audio equipment to ensure that a noise abatement notice is complied with. The courts have recently demonstrated the existence and effectiveness of that power. Any environmental health officer who is in doubt about the existence of that power should examine schedule 3 to the 1990 Act, where it is clearly set out.

Mr. Haynes : Mr. Speaker, Sir, when we had a Greater London Council, the noise of lorries in London was controlled. Is the Minister aware that when I lie in my flat at night I cannot sleep for noise? I need to be fit so that I can stay awake in that Committee upstairs. Will the Minister do something about it?

Mr. Baldry : The hon. Gentleman is conversant with the problem of noise pollution in every way. He will be glad to know that we have set up a noise review working party and that one of the issues that it has been considering is traffic noise and how to deal with it more effectively.

Diesel Fuel

9. Mr. Roger King : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what steps he proposes to take to encourage the use of low- sulphur diesel fuel.

Mr. Baldry : The Government welcome the European Commission's draft directive setting new limits for the sulphur content of diesel fuel and other gasoil. Those are a necessary complement to last year's directive on emission standards for heavy duty diesel vehicles. We are working for resolution of outstanding points of technical detail with a view to early adoption by the Council of Ministers.

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Mr. King : My hon. Friend will know of the widespread success of his unleaded petrol campaign, which has persuaded motorists to use a more environmentally acceptable fuel. Is he aware that 10 per cent. of cars purchased these days run on diesel, and that there is widespread concern that the fuel used has a heavy sulphur content? The European Commission wants that content to be reduced to a very small amount by 1995-96. Will my hon. Friend speak to our right hon. Friend the Chancellor about introducing financial incentives similar to those for unleaded fuel so as to encourage speedier acceptance of a lower-sulphur fuel?

Mr. Baldry : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The fiscal incentives for use of unleaded petrol have been a great success. As my hon. Friend knows, fiscal matters are for our right hon. Friend the Chancellor. However, my hon. Friend's suggestion envisages simultaneous availability on the market of two different grades of diesel, which would present difficulties in terms of separate pumps, separate distribution systems, and so on. Moreover, it would soon become redundant when the low sulphur standard becomes mandatory for all diesel. We are seeking to resolve a similar difficulty with the Commission's proposals.

Mr. Dalyell : In view of the sulphur monoxide consequencies, have the Government taken into account the latest findings from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in relation to the ozone layer, and the need for urgent measures to be taken into account in view of this desperately dangerous and cancer-giving situation?

Mr. Baldry : The Government have been at the forefront in calling on our European partners to take action to reduce chlorofluorocarbons by 1995. My hon. Friend the Minister of State will no doubt have something to say about that to European Community colleagues this weekend.

Mr. Paice : Will my hon. Friend look at the work being done in Austria and France to make an eco-friendly diesel fuel from oilseed rape and other oil crops? Will he particularly look at what the French are doing in terms of tax concessions to encourage the viability of such an environmentally friendly fuel, and will he perhaps have a word with our right hon. Friend the Chancellor on that subject?

Mr. Baldry : In that area, as in so many, enhancing environmental improvements will mean considerable scope for new environmental technology. The good example that my hon. Friend gives shows that, in pursuit of higher environmental standards, new technology is coming forward. I shall certainly look with interest at the specific matters to which my hon. Friend has drawn attention.

Mr. Simon Hughes : What is the Government's general policy in relation to fuel and environmental protection? Given that the chairman of the Conservative party and the Secretary of State for Energy have accepted, on behalf of the Conservative party, that petrol prices will have to rise, do the Government wish to take action before Europe imposes its own regime on us, or will they wait for Europe? What increases in fuel prices does the Conservative party envisage in the next 10 years?

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Mr. Baldry : It is a great pity that not one member of the Liberal Democratic party could be bothered to attend the European Standing Committee this morning, where we debated those matters for nearly two and a half hours. Had they bothered to look in on that Standing Committee, they would have heard me make it clear that the Government will be working in co-operation with our European Community colleagues to find a way of reducing carbon dioxide emissions effectively. We have said that we recognise that high energy prices may have to play a part in a strategy for reducing carbon dioxide emissions. It is important, however, to recognise that this is a global problem which requires a global solution. Perversely, unilateral action, even by the European Community, could have the effect of increasing carbon dioxide emissions.

Air Quality

10. Mr. Corbyn : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what action is being taken by his Department to monitor air quality in London ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Trippier : My Department already spends more than £4 million annually on monitoring air quality, particularly in London, and making the information available to the general public and the media. We are extending the range and coverage of our urban air quality monitoring network in the coming years, and an additional monitoring site came into operation in central London last month.

Mr. Corbyn : Is the Minister aware that many people in London are deeply disturbed by the increasing incidence of asthma among children, but that the Minister for Health has been unable to give figures relating to the level of asthma suffering in London as a result of air pollution, which is caused mainly by vehicles? In December, air quality levels were the worst for 11 years, with carbon monoxide at 13.3 parts per million, and nitrogen dioxide at 243 parts per billion? Does he agree that the serious deterioration of air quality in London arises mainly from increasing vehicle movements and that the best course would therefore be to improve public transport, reduce the number of cars going through London and ensure cleaner fuels and cleaner burn to preserve the health of our children, who are suffering grievously because of the increasing levels of pollution in central London?

Mr. Trippier : No one has a monopoly of concern about this issue. Neither is the problem confined to London. As two members of my family suffer quite badly from asthma--they suffered particularly when we had low- level ozone problems last summer--I am well aware of the situation. I can give the hon. Gentleman and the House some comfort by saying that over the next two years things will change dramatically. By the end of this year, the fitting of catalysts to new cars will be mandatory. Then there are the new European Community standards for heavy diesel vehicles. The new MOT exhaust emissions test, which was introduced only a few months ago, will also play a significant part in cleaning up the air. In addition, there are traffic management measures, including red routes, of which the hon. Gentleman is aware. The Environmental

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Protection Act 1990, too, has raised the standards of air pollution control. The combination of those measures will improve the situation dramatically.

Mr. Jessel : Is not aircraft noise the worst form of air pollution in London? Does the Minister agree that, as the Government have curbed night flights, refused planning permission for a heliport at Cannon Street in the City, stopped the Heathrow-Gatwick helicopter link and refused planning permission for a fifth terminal at Heathrow, they are second to none in protecting people from the blight and the curse of aircraft noise?

Mr. Trippier : I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that matter. I add only that a consultation paper on aircraft noise, including the noise caused by leisure flying, has been released. That paper is the responsibility of the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, and I have no doubt that when it has gone out we shall receive positive comments and shall act accordingly.

Rev. Martin Smyth : We welcome the positive steps that the Minister says have been taken, and we are glad to hear of the amount of money being spent on monitoring. What specific lessons have been learnt which could result in a reduction of air pollution? I am thinking, for example, of the city of Belfast and other urban areas throughout Northern Ireland which in the past year have suffered more than ever from air pollution.

Mr. Trippier : The most important outcome of the increased use of monitoring equipment is that people who suffer from respiratory diseases can be alerted to the possibility of a problem arising within the following 24 hours. I have already indicated that, as members of my family suffer from asthma, I am aware that it is absolutely essential to have such information. The advice provided by the Department of Health is very good. The Department advises people who suffer from respiratory diseases to take minimum exercise and, preferably, to stay indoors. That is the purpose of the monitoring equipment. We have learnt that when there is protracted sunlight during the summer months the low-level ozone problem is activated and aggravated, causing massive difficulty for those who suffer from respiratory diseases. All the measures that I catalogued earlier will help to reduce vehicle emissions--the principal cause of bad air.

Green Belts

11. Mr. Dykes : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will consider the need for additional regulations to enhance the ecological protection of the environment for green belt areas of open space in the outer London boroughs.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Tim Yeo) : We will shortly issue a draft planning policy guidance note on nature conservation which will expand and update our existing policies to promote nature conservation in all areas, including the green belts.

Mr. Dykes : I thank my hon. Friend for being part of the Government who have enhanced and protected green belt districts more robustly than any other Government of the post-war period. I believe that total green belt space has doubled since 1979. I particularly thank my hon. Friend

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and his colleagues for recently calling in the Hillside and Brookshill development in my district so as to protect still further the local green belt land. Is my hon. Friend aware that without fresh primary legislation it is possible to require owners of green belt land to ensure that it is maintained properly and not just left undeveloped?

Mr. Yeo : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to reinforce the Government's commitment to protect green belt districts. We have been robust in dealing with planning applications in green belt areas, and we are wholly committed to the five objectives of the green belt. As my hon. Friend said, we have substantially increased the area covered by green belt in this country, and I welcome this chance to make absolutely clear to any planning applicants thinking of trying to develop green belt land that we shall stand by our commitments.

English Heritage

12. Mr. Tony Banks : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment when county hall and Battersea power station were last inspected by English Heritage as his advisers on historic buildings matters.

Mr. Yeo : Both buildings were last inspected by English Heritage on Thursday 13 February.

Mr. Banks : How very convenient! Is it not disgraceful that two of London's most conspicuous and well-known landmarks--county hall and Battersea power station--stand empty, forlorn and in an increasingly derelict state? Does the Minister recall that a shyster developer was going to turn Battersea power station into a theme park? The building now stands in grave danger from the weather, derelict and in ruins. Is it not a fitting monument to 13 years of shyster Tory Government?

Mr. Yeo : The only thing that stands between county hall being put to good use is the Labour-controlled Lambeth borough council, which is squandering charge payers' money on increasingly desperate but unsuccessful attempts to prevent the sale of county hall and its productive use for hotel and residential accommodation. The consequence of those legal manoeuvres is to deny other London boroughs a massive capital receipt which could have been put to good use on behalf of charge payers. That attitude exposes the fact that Labour's posture on capital receipts is totally fraudulent. If the Labour party were in power, there would be no capital receipts. The hon. Gentleman's question was interesting in that it linked county hall and Battersea power station, making it clear that the Labour party's plans for a reborn Greater London council are not the reassuring slim-line version that Labour spokesmen have been peddling. The Labour party plans a vast and sprawling bureaucracy which will need not just county hall, but Battersea power station, to house the thousands of officials required to carry out the wishes of Labour's public sector trade union paymasters.

Mr. Bowis : Is my hon. Friend aware that the Member representing Battersea has kept in regular touch with English Heritage, from which he has received confirmation that everything that needs to be done to protect that building has been done? English Heritage pays tribute to the work of Wandsworth borough council in ensuring that, if the owner of the building has not done the work,

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