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House of Commons

Wednesday 20 October 1993

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions


Local Government Commission

1. Mr. David Atkinson : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on progress of the work of the Local Government Commission.

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. John Selwyn Gummer) : We announced on 30 September that the commission's programme was tbe speeded up so that all the remaining shire reviews could be completed by the end of 1994. We also issued some proposed amendments to the commission's guidance on policy and procedures. We are consulting the commission and the local authority associations on the implications of the new timetable and guidance.

Mr. Atkinson : I welcome my right hon. Friend's decision to speed up the work of the commission. Can he say whether he expects the elections to the new unitary authorities to take place in 1995? Does he agree that one of the sad lessons of the last local government reorganisation was that the smaller unitary authorities, such as the former county borough councils, including Bournemouth, proved to be much more beautiful and efficient?

Mr. Gummer : As the legislation has to complete its passage through the House, I would not like to be too definite about the number that would be possible. I agree with my hon. Friend that people in many parts of the country are looking for local government that is closer to the people but large enough to have the necessary powers.

Mr. Clelland : Is the Secretary of State aware that the democratic deficit of the country has now reached such an extent that we are the least represented democracy in the modern world, and that the work of the commission, by reducing the numbers of councils and councillors, will further aggravate that situation? Does he agree that the Government should arrange for the election of democratically elected regional government, instead of further extending the unelected state by the appointment of seven regional commissars who are responsible only to the doctrines and dictates of Whitehall?

Mr. Gummer : I find it difficult to understand that a spokesman from a party whose democratic deficit has never been properly addressed can make such a comment at all. The Labour party's policy and representatives are

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largely dictated by people who have never liked elections of any kind. Many of them are elected for life in a way that, until the rules were changed, was reminiscent of Haiti. I am certainly not learning anything from the hon. Gentleman about that. Our purpose is to make us more democratic and have a democratic system much closer to the people.

Mr. Barry Field : My right hon. Friend will be aware of the concern in the Isle of Wight at the announcement made during the recess. This morning, the Select Committee on the Environment took evidence from Sir John Banham and we were surprised to learn that the next tranche has been frozen, so far as the commission is concerned. That includes Hampshire and has implications for the administration of the Isle of Wight.

When my right hon. Friend was Minister for local government, he was a great gladiator for every community making its own decisions. Can he reassure my constituents this afternoon, and other Conservative Members who believe in unitary government--small being beautiful--that the whole thing is not becoming murkier and opaque by the minute?

Mr. Gummer : I am sure that the most important thing is for local government to be as close as possible to those who elect it, so that the people know why the decisions are made and know to whom those decisions are to be accounted for. My hon. Friend has particular difficulties, as I am aware, with the Isle of Wight, and we are trying to address some of them. I hope that he will be able to put those points more clearly in the Adjournment debate which I understand that he will have. I assure him that we want this to be as transparent as possible.

Mrs. Helen Jackson : In view of the astonishment expressed this morning by the chairman of the Local Government Commission at being directed yesterday to cease all work on the second tranche of reorganisation of local authorities, does the Secretary of State not now agree that the whole process and programme of reorganisation on which they have embarked is in an utter shambles? It does not have the backing of public support.

Mr. Gummer : I find that an odd question, if I may say so. The fact is that the commission is concerned to listen closely to what the public wants. The hon. Lady must see that clearly, not only from the commission's actions but from its guidance. The reason why the direction was issued was simply that it is much more clear if future decisions are made under the new guidance, which cannot be officially promoted until the proper time after the consultation has taken place. If the hon. Lady does not understand that, I wish that she would go back and read the documents.

Mr. Thomason : Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he sees the best possible outcome normally to be the creation of unitary authorities, arising from the Local Government Commission review? Will he also encourage the Local Government Commission to listen to that view? Some of us who listened, with concern, to the evidence given this morning to the Select Committee gained the impression that there might be some lack of enthusiasm among certain senior members of the commission for the introduction of unitary local government.

Mr. Gummer : There is no doubt from the guidance that we would expect the norm of local government to be unitary authorities, but we are first concerned that it should

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be local government that the population see as the best form for their area. Therefore, we are perfectly well aware that there may be a variety of ways to conduct local government. Many of us regret the loss of variety. We hope that unitary local government will seek to delegate its powers, wherever suitable, to parish and town councils, for example. At the same time, we point to the importance of unitary local government because it ensures that people know whom to hold to account when decisions are made. In two-tier local government, there is often a grave difficulty with that.

Mr. Straw : Will the Secretary of State make a clear statement about how the costs of the reorganisation are to be borne? Does he understand that the whole exercise is necessary only because the Conservatives made such a botch of reorganisation in 1972? In those circumstances, it would be outrageous if the local people of the areas concerned were forced to pay all the costs of reorganisation by an alleged £100 surcharge on every council tax bill. If there is to be a surcharge, should it not be paid by the Ministers and Conservative Members of Parliament, such as the Secretary of State, who drove the 1972 reorganisation through the House of Commons despite the Labour party's consistent warnings that it would be an expensive and wasteful failure?

Mr. Gummer : I rather suspect that the Labour party at the time wanted an entirely different system, one that would have been extremely bad, as is usually the case. The reorganisation is intended to end with a simpler system of local government, which will cost less. I hope that the savings will be given to the council tax payers for whom they are made. I see no need to expect this to cost very much, simply because there will be considerable savings and we are not necessarily extending or increasing bureaucracy. The hon. Gentleman's worries are entirely unfounded.

Council for the Protection of Rural England

2. Mr. Rathbone : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment when last he met representatives of the CPRE to discuss new housing development in the south-east ; and if he will make a statement.

The Minister for Housing, Inner Cities and Construction (Sir George Young) : My right hon. Friend met a delegation from the CPRE led by Lord Marlesford on 8 July. My hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Planning met another one on 1 September. The CPRE's views on the proposed level of housing for the south-east are well known to my Department and will be taken into account, together with those of other bodies, in the final version of the regional planning guidance for the south-east to be published later this year.

Mr. Rathbone : I welcome my right hon. Friend's contact with the CPRE. Does that lead him to conclude that the aim to have 35,000 more houses in East Sussex is over the top and that there are opportunities for building on derlict urban land of which advantage has not yet been fully taken? Any development of housing, whether in urban or rural areas, must be environmentally sensitive.

Sir George Young : I agree with my hon. Friend. No final decision has been taken on the figure of 35,000, and we are consulting on that. I agree that all use should be

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made of derelict and underused land, the so- called brown land, before we make further encroachments into green fields. On my hon. Friend's last point, what we want to do is what he wants to do-- provide decent homes for those living in his constituency without making unacceptable environmental sacrifices.

County Hall, London

3. Mr. Tony Banks : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment when he now expects the redevelopment of county hall, SE1 to be completed.

The Minister for Local Government and Planning (Mr. David Curry) : The Shirayama Corporation plans to finish its redevelopment of the riverside building by March 1996.

Mr. Banks : Does the Minister accept that the decision by "Baroness Bonkers" to abolish the Greater London council is deeply resented by Londoners, and does he accept that London is now in a chaotic state? Why will the Secretary of State not allow the people of London to discuss the possibility of having a strategic authority? He could get his own back on "Baroness Bonkers", who has said some rather nasty things about him.

Madam Speaker : Order. The hon. Gentleman's vocabulary is quite unacceptable.

Mr. Banks : Does the Minister accept that the decision to allow a bunch of Japanese property sharks to take over county hall and turn it into an hotel is an insult to London? If the development cannot go ahead, will the Minister allow the roof to come off county hall and become derelict, just like Battersea power station?

Mr. Curry : I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the Dispatch Box, but it is easy to see why the GLC acquired the representation it did while he was prominently involved.

Not a dog has barked for the GLC. I have never known a corpse to die and decompose so rapidly and there to be so little regret at its departure. As for the Japanese corporation, the London residuary body has instructions to get the best price for county hall. A development is needed as that is one of the prime sites in London. The development that has been approved is exciting, and we expect completion to take place on 29 October. The sooner life returns to that side of the river the better, and a life that is forward looking rather than backward looking to the GLC.

Mr. Congdon : Does my hon. Friend recall the waste and extravagance of the late and unlamented GLC and does not he agree that many London Members welcome the opportunity to sell county hall to ensure that the proceeds flow back to the London boroughs?

Mr. Curry : The proceeds will flow back to the London boroughs during the period of the window for capital receipts, and they will be particularly beneficial to the boroughs. Nothing that the Khazbulatov of county hall says will make a difference.

Ms Hoey : Is the Minister aware that originally there was great opposition to the Shirayama development? Does he recognise that the Government could learn a lesson from the way in which Shirayama is working closely with local

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people and with the local authority in trying to make the development as near as possible to what local people want and to bring jobs to the community?

Mr. Curry : One of the things that have changed during recent years since the demise of the GLC is that councils of all complexions have worked more sensibly with the private sector. That must be welcomed, and it brings a lot of sense and imagination to local government. I am delighted that that should be the case.

Mr. John Marshall : Does my hon. Friend accept that the redevelopment of county hall will provide worthwhile jobs for Londoners? Does he also accept that the abolition of the GLC has saved London ratepayers many tens of millions of pounds and that the GLC is regretted only by those who purloined its GLC silver?

Mr. Curry : I agree.

Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant

4. Mr. Alan W. Williams : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the progress of the consultation relating to his responsibilities for licensing THORP.

The Minister for the Environment and Countryside (Mr. Tim Yeo) : Consultation ended on 4 October. When all the consultation responses have been carefully considered, my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for the Environment and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will decide whether to afford a hearing or inquiry, and, if they decide not to do so, will take final decisions on the authorisations.

Mr. Williams : Today's issue of The Guardian states that German utilities may cancel their contracts with the thermal oxide reprocessing plant because the cost of reprocessing is more than twice the cost of dry storage. The original justification for THORP was that it would use the recovered uranium and plutonium, but there is not a market for those materials as there is a glut on the world market. Does the Minister agree that the original arguments for THORP have changed fundamentally since the 1970s and that they should now be subjected to a detailed independent public inquiry?

Mr. Yeo : I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman's remarks reflect a hostility to the nuclear industry that is widely shared by Opposition Members and that owes more to the continuing malign and powerful influence exercised over Labour party policy by Mr. Arthur Scargill and Labour's other paymasters in the National Union of Mineworkers than to any concern with the environment or safety.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : Will my hon. Friend not accept that if a decision is not taken pretty soon, all the orders will have gone up the spout, and work in Cumbria will be seriously imperilled?

Mr. Yeo : I assure my hon. Friend that, as soon as we have carefully considered all the responses, we will make a decision. We are aware of the desirability of making that decision as soon as we reasonably and responsibly can.

Mr. Simon Hughes : Is not the truth about the consultation as stated in the evidence given by a departmental official at a conference in Germany --that the consultation process that has just ended was the only way

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that the Department could think of trying to protect itself against the argument that, in law, it had to hold a public inquiry? In the light of all the changing circumstances, such as economic risks from Germany, increasing international opposition and increasing health concern, should not we accept--whatever our views on the issue--that the only way in which we will reach a decision that will stand up as valid and impartial is by allowing for some sort of scrutiny independent of the Government before the final decision is made?

Mr. Yeo : The Government have proceeded with extreme care at each step of the way. The purpose of that is to allow my right hon. Friends the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Secretary of State for the Environment to make up their minds on the basis of the facts available.

Council Tax

5. Mr. Clappison : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what help is available to people living alone under the council tax.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Tony Baldry) : People living alone are entitled to a 25 per cent. discount on their council tax bill. Those on low incomes may also qualify for benefit to offset all or part of their council tax liability. They may also receive transitional relief, which eases the change from the community charge to the council tax.

Mr. Clappison : Does my hon. Friend agree that--unlike that proposed under recent Labour party policy--the help that he has just described is available for all single people? Does he further agree that the single people who are in the best position of all are those who live in Conservative-controlled areas? Is my hon. Friend aware of the very substantial difference between the council taxes levied in Conservative and in Labour areas?

Mr. Baldry : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Single people living in Conservative-held areas will know that, in addition to the discount, band for band, they are paying £100 less than they would if they were living in a Labour-controlled area. My hon. Friend is also right in believing--and it is worth remembering--that if the Labour party had had its way, there would have been no discounts at all for single people under the council tax system.

Mr. Pike : Does not the Minister recall the Government's concern about the plight of single pensioners and widows living alone under the rating system? Does not he recognise that many hundreds of thousands of widows and pensioners living alone are paying far more in council tax than they were in rates or poll tax and that that is especially true of those living in low-value properties? Should not we introduce a band lower than band A, as that would bring considerable benefit to that category of people?

Mr. Baldry : It comes ill from the mouth of a representative of the Labour party, which was opposed to any discount whatever for single people, to pretend that that party is the friend of those living on their own.

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Rents to Mortgages

6. Mr. Deva : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment how many people he expects to benefit from the proposed rents-to-mortgages scheme.

Mr. Gummer : There are more than 1.4 million council tenants who pay full rent and who will be eligible. We hope that as many as possible will take up this new opportunity.

Mr. Deva : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the scheme, which extends choice and opportunity for council tenants who would not otherwise have the opportunity to buy their own homes, is an extension of our great policy of giving people their own homes and the right to buy?

Mr. Gummer : It is important that people who can build something for the future should be given the opportunity to do so. One of the strengths of Conservative party policy is that it spreads to the many the privileges that were once enjoyed only by a few.

Mr. Soley : Given the crisis in, and the lack of, affordable rented accommodation, how does the Secretary of State propose to replace the rented properties that are sold? Could he not put as much effort into a mortgages-to-rents scheme to prevent the nightmare of home owners being put into bed-and-breakfast accommodation because they do not have any rented accommodation to which to go?

Mr. Gummer : The hon. Gentleman misses the point. The homes are occupied ; they are not empty. Under our proposed system, someone who would otherwise be paying rent for the rest of his or her life can begin to build up a capital asset, and so release capital for councils in other ways. The hon. Gentleman should be an enthusiast for the scheme. Yet again, however, any opportunity to spread ownership is opposed by Labour Members, who want to keep people under the control of local authorities.

Sir Anthony Durant : Will my right hon. Friend tell the House the Opposition's views on this new scheme? We do not seem to have heard anything from the Opposition.

Madam Speaker : Order. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Minister answers for his own Government.

Mr. Battle : It is not the Secretary of State's duty to issue a "buyer beware" notice, instead of wasting more public money advertising this latest scheme? More than 70,000 people who have bought council flats under the right to buy now face massive repair and lease bills and service charges that they cannot pay. As mortgage companies are now refusing to lend money on former council flats and houses, what will the Secretary of State do about those people who have huge debts, who are unable to sell and who are trapped in their own homes? Will he endorse the comments of the Council of Mortgage Lenders, which recently told Wandsworth council simply to buy them back?

Mr. Gummer : What a miserable party the Labour party is. Here we have the largest extension of freedom that we have known in Britain for many, many years ; here we have hundreds of thousands of families owning their own homes ; here we have the removal of Labour party control over large sections of people's lives ; and all that the hon. Gentleman can do is to moan on in that particular way. It

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is about time that the people of Britain see that if they want an optimistic future, they will have to support the Government.

Right to Buy

7. Mr. Harry Greenway : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what plans he has to seek to extend the right to buy their homes to tenants of all housing associations ; and if he will make a statement.

Sir George Young : The Government have no plans to extend the statutory right to buy, which is enjoyed by secure tenants of non- charitable housing associations, to tenants of charitable associations and to assured tenants. All associations are able to sell homes to their tenants on a voluntary basis, and we have encouraged them to apply the proceeds of such sales towards the provision of new social housing. The Government also provide grants to enable housing association tenants to buy into forms of shared ownership with a housing association or into outright ownership in the private market.

Mr. Greenway : Is my right hon. Friend aware that in Northolt, tenants of the Kittiwake road housing associations' development will have no right to buy? Local people have been required, through an unwilling Ealing council, to contribute £300,000 towards the land given to the housing associations for the development scheme. At the Perivale hospital site, 133 homes are being built by the housing associations which will not involve any right to buy or shared ownership. Does that not mean that housing association tenants, in cases where there is no right to buy, are second-class citizens compared to council tenants? Is it not time that this situation was ended?

Sir George Young : As my hon. Friend may know, the Government proposed legislation in the 1980s to extend the right to buy to tenants of charitable housing associations. Those proposals were twice rejected in another place. To bring home ownership within the reach of housing association tenants, we have developed alternative schemes, including the tenants' incentive scheme and the do-it-yourself shared ownership scheme, so that housing association tenants do have the opportunity of becoming home owners.

Mr. George Howarth : I welcome the Minister's lack of agreement with his hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway). The attention that the Government continue to lavish on owner occupation at the expense of rented housing is unworthy of the Minister. Would it not be better if he spent some time looking at positive alternatives to the irrelevant rent-to- mortgage scheme? It is about time that the Minister--who came to his job with something of a reputation--stopped scapegoating single-parent families and did something constructive about housing instead of continuing the present destructive policies.

Sir George Young : On the first point, we are devoting substantial resources to providing more affordable homes for rent, as the hon. Gentleman knows. The figure is about 60,000 for the current year, three times more than it was two or three years ago. We are investing substantial sums to provide homes for rent. As to the second point, before the hon. Gentleman mines that quarry much further, he should read The Independent of Wednesday 7 July, which said :

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"Labour slants homes policy against the single parent".

Mr. Duncan Smith : Does my right hon. Friend accept--in line with what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) --that we have a problem with the housing associations? In areas such as mine--Waltham Forest, whose socialist-controlled council has been very dilatory in selling council homes to council tenants--housing associations are now buying up more land, locking more people into social housing and not giving them the opportunity to take up the right to buy, of which all Conservative Members are justifiably proud. May I urge my right hon. Friend to look again at the possibility of breaking down the position in regard to housing associations, so that we may change it radically?

Sir George Young : I am very interested in what my hon. Friend has said. A growing proportion of the Housing Corporation's budget is being spent on schemes that promote home ownership rather than renting. Shared- ownership incentive schemes, for example, now account for a larger percentage of the budget.

I am anxious for the housing association movement to be directed back towards its roots--towards urban regeneration, modernisation and improvement for sale, rather than towards extensive new building schemes for green-field sites. I said in Blackpool that I intended to bring about that redirection, which would be welcomed by many in the housing association movement.

Housing Associations

8. Mr. Raynsford : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement about the level of housing association grant in 1994-95.

Sir George Young : I announced on 4 August that the published grant rates for the rented programme in 1994-95 would average 62 per cent. and that they would be a ceiling against which housing associations would be invited to bid.

Mr. Raynsford : As the Minister well knows, all informed opinion in the housing world--including the Housing Corporation itself and the Select Committee on the Environment--advised him not to make further cuts in housing association grant. That advice was given in the light of overwhelming evidence of the devastating impact of rent increases on tenants, which has forced them into benefit dependency and the poverty trap. When will the Minister recognise his responsibility to tenants, rather than acting--as he increasingly appears to be doing--as George the gopher, delivering cuts for the Treasury?

Sir George Young : That was an unusually unintelligent question from the hon. Gentleman. He knows perfectly well that the reductions in grant rate have nothing whatever to do with the totality of resources available. Those reductions enable more homes to be built for a given public pound. By progressively increasing the amount of private funds going into housing associations, we have enabled 30,000 more homes to be built than could have been built otherwise. If the hon. Gentleman wants to put the grant rate back to where it was, he must accept that fewer homes would then be available to meet the needs of those who require good-quality accommodation.

Mr. Tracey : Is not my right hon. Friend bothered by the impression that housing associations are too regularly

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using their grant to outbid private sector developers? Will he amplify what he said in Blackpool about controlling the position and taking housing associations back to their roots in the way that he has just described, so that they can renovate out-of-date property and bring housing up to a proper standard, rather than building new housing?

Sir George Young : In the past few minutes, I have certainly noticed some antipathy towards housing associations--particularly those in London-- among my hon. Friends. I readily accept my hon. Friend's invitation to describe in more detail the proposals that I outlined a few weeks ago, to ensure that thving houses for sale, rather than building new houses. That could equally well be done by house builders building for sale.

Mr. Straw : Will the Minister come clean for once and confess whether he is any more comfortable with the disingenuous poppycock with which he answered my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) a moment ago than he was with the undignified role that he was put up to play at the Conservative party conference? There, as my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Howarth) said, he had to resort to scapegoating the children of single parents to pass on the blame for the housing crisis over which he presides. Will he admit that a reduction in the grant rate to housing associations necessarily requires an increase in private funding for housing associations, which in turn will force up rents--which have already rocketed--and that that, in turn, will force up housing benefit contributions from the Treasury? Will he admit that the overall consequence of those policies is to deny choice to any potential tenant who is in work and earning above housing benefit levels and to create ghettos out of what were once decent housing association estates?

Sir George Young : We all understand that there are shadow Cabinet elections today, which means that Opposition Members have to put more spice into their questions. The hon. Gentleman knows that there is a trade-off between rent levels and the volume of output. I have decided that the priority is to increase the output of affordable homes for rent. That is why the grant rate has decreased and imputed rents have increased. Housing benefit is there to take the strain for those who cannot pay housing association rents. One must remember, however, that the average new rent on a housing association property is £42 a week. In my view that is affordable, given that housing benefit is there to take the strain for those on low incomes.

Bathing Waters

9. Mr. Robathan : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment how many bathing waters were designated by the Government for the purposes of the 1975 EC bathing waters directive by May 1979 ; and how many are designated now.

Mr. Yeo : No bathing waters were identified by May 1979. Since that date, 458 bathing waters have been identified.

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Mr. Robathan : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. I am glad to hear that our bathing water is as clean as anywhere else. Does he accept that there is concern in this country that we seem to fare badly in European Community league tables with regard to the cleanliness of our bathing water? Will he reassure the House that in future dealings with our European continental partners he will insist that European officials also enforce the standards rigorously and ensure that their testing is done without bias?

Mr. Yeo : I am glad to be able to reassure my hon. Friend that, of the 3,165 European Community bathing waters that do not reach the mandatory standards laid down in the directive, only 3 per cent. are in the United Kingdom. We shall press for revision of that directive. We want it, first, to take more account of the subsidiarity principle ; secondly, to be subject to a proper cost-benefit analysis ; and, thirdly, to confine its scope to protecting the health of bathers. We shall require an even-handed approach to enforcement of that directive and all others. That is central to the credibility of the European Community and we will make the most strenuous efforts to achieve it.

Mr. Chris Smith : Will the Minister confirm, however, that in July the Government were found guilty in the European Court for the condition of Blackpool's bathing water? Will he confirm that in August his own reports showed that two thirds of all our beaches failed to meet the European guideline standards for safety and that that is the second worst performance of any country in Europe? Will he admit also that he is engaged in discussions with the French Government about the repeal, withdrawal and amendment of the bathing water directive? Why is the Government's response to failure to try to bend standards, not to improve performance? Is not it time that the Government put people's health and safety before the profits of the privatised water companies?

Mr. Yeo : That was quite a mouthful from the hon. Gentleman. The case in relation to Blackpool was purely a technicality because everyone who goes to Blackpool--I have just had the pleasure of spending a week there--will be aware that the programme of improvement to the bathing waters at Blackpool is well in hand. It is part of the £2 billion programme of the water industry in this country to ensure that we achieve full compliance with the standards of the bathing water directive by the end of 1995. I will happily assure the hon. Gentleman, however, that the British Government have had productive and positive talks with the French Government and with other member states about the scope for extending the important principle of subsidiarity to the bathing water directive, the drinking water directive and many others. The whole country will wish to know that it is the Labour party that wants to overthrow the principles of subsidiarity and is not interested in pressing ahead because it wants all those decisions to be transferred to Brussels lock, stock and barrel.

Mr. Mans : Does my hon. Friend agree that beaches such as those at Blackpool have never been cleaner? In the wider context, does he also agree that one of the problems is that the directive is deeply flawed and that many other countries refuse to designate beaches as bathing beaches?

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When he is next in Brussels will he ensure that those countries that do not designate bathing beaches do not get subsidies from Brussels to improve their tourist industry?

Mr. Yeo : My hon. Friend is right. First, the quality of the beach at Blackpool has never been higher, is improving all the time and will be even better by the time that we next visit Blackpool for another harmonious and triumphant week in October 1995. Secondly, my hon. Friend is also right that there has been much confusion in the interpretation of the directive and over what constitutes a bathing water. That is certainly one of the areas that we shall be dealing with through our efforts to have the directive revised and a greater element of common sense introduced into it.

Area Cost Adjustment

10. Mr. Beith : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what representations he has received from northern local authorities about the area cost adjustment.

Mr. Curry : We have received many representations from all parts of the country about the area cost adjustment in the course of our review of standard spending assessments.

Mr. Beith : Has the Minister taken particular note of the feelings of northern authorities, such as Northumberland, which have to meet the same pay settlements for firemen and teachers as authorities in the south but are not compensated in the same way? The system appears to have cost Northumberland £2.5 million in the past year. Since some of those authorities have widely scattered populations and, therefore, very high costs in other respects, will he consider carefully some way to ameliorate the situation quickly in next year's settlement?

Mr. Curry : The fact is that those who get the area cost adjustment think that it is indispensable and that those who do not think that it is disgraceful. We are subjecting the adjustment to careful scrutiny to decide whether it stands up. If it does it will be retained ; if not, it will be modified or we will get rid of it. On the right hon. Gentleman's question about sparsity and scattered rural communities, when we announce the review --we are nearing the final stages--I am sure that he will realise that we have sought to identify all those factors that genuinely compel local authority spending. I am sure that he will find that the adjustment is comprehensive, rational, fair and a great improvement on what we have now.

Mr. Robert B. Jones : Will my hon. Friend contrast the question of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) with the stance of Liberal county councillors in Hertfordshire, who are saying exactly the opposite, as Liberals tend to do? Is not it a fact that no proper case has been put for the abolition of the area cost adjustment? The left-wing majority on the Association of County Councils formed by Liberals and the Labour party is out to cane the district and county councils of Hertfordshire and Surrey.

Mr. Curry : All the elements that go into the standard spending assessments are being subjected to careful examination and scrutiny. I am determined that that should be done fully and that the outcome should be balanced and fair. Where an element has stood up to that scrutiny and it

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is clear that it is justified, it will be retained. Where it is clear that the weighting is wrong, we shall seek to adjust it and when it should go it will go. We shall end up with a more rational and transparent system, which will more accurately reflect the real costs pushing up local government expenditure.

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