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Mr. John Marshall : Is my right hon. Friend aware that 9 per cent. of Hackney council's housing stock is unlet ? Does he not think that the council is trying to become even less efficient than Lambeth council--if that is possible ?
Sir George Young : My hon. Friend is right : there are housing difficulties in Hackney and it is incumbent on Hackney council to do all that it can to make better use of its housing stock. Filling those properties would generate a rental income which, in turn, could be ploughed back into improving the condition of the housing stock. I very much hope that will be one of the issues on which public attention will be focused in London over the forthcoming months.
Mr. Gummer : No. This is primarily a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage ; but I understand that English Heritage inspected the building last month and noted no significant change in its condition.
Mr. Banks : Does the Secretary of State recall John Broome's proposals 10 years ago to turn Battersea power station into a sort of Disneyland, at a ceremony attended by Margaret Thatcher ? Now--apart from its roof having come off--the power station is in danger of falling down. As the Minister responsible for London, and the ultimate planning authority for London, will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that he will take urgent steps to find a community use for Gilbert Scott's wonderful gem on the Thames that is compatible with its architectural importance ?
Mr. Gummer : We must get the balance right. Much of the work done under Mr. Broome's ownership was of a structural nature, and it is clear that the danger to which the hon. Gentleman refers does not exist at present. I shall keep an eye on the power station, however, because--like the hon. Gentleman--I recognise its importance as an architectural feature. Although there is dispute about quite how important it is, I accept the hon. Gentleman's view.
Mr. Rowe : Does my right hon. Friend agree that Battersea power station is just one example of a sad category of buildings that have attracted the attention of Government Departments as gems of one kind or another, but have then been listed in a way that makes it extraordinarily difficult to adapt them, and have then been left for long periods ? Many have decayed to a point at which they can no longer be rescued. Will my right hon. Friend speak to the Secretary of State for National Heritage about this distressing scandal ?
Mr. Gummer : I wonder whether it is a growing scandal, although it is certainly distressing when buildings that might be put to better and newer use are not so put. We must accept that it is particularly difficult to find a new use for this building. It is, however, being regularly and properly inspected by English Heritage, and it should be recognised that large sums are necessary if it is to be put to a reasonable use. I do not think that my hon. Friend has many bright ideas about that--and few Opposition Members have either bright ideas or suggestions about where the money should come from.
10. Ms Coffey : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what representations he has received about the proposals to change priorities for rehousing families in permanent council accommodation.
Ms Coffey : Does the Minister agree that, in the allocation of houses, it is not the system but the shortage of decent, affordable housing that is the problem ? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that an inevitable consequence of the proposals in the homelessness review will be an increase in the number of children coming into care because their parents are overwhelmed by housing difficulties ? Does he really want to go back to a "Cathy Come Home" situation ? Will he reconsider his proposals, which only serve to punish the homeless for their housing need, and deal with the real problem, which is a shortage of decent, affordable housing in this country ?
Mr. Gummer : I think that the hon. Lady is mistaken, and I shall explain why. At the moment, we have a situation in which some people, who are in very bad housing conditions but are not technically homeless, are left in those conditions, whereas others, who are in better conditions but are technically homeless, take the places that are available. What we are proposing is simply that we should seek a common means of sharing, on the basis of need, the accommodation that is available. The hon. Lady should be ashamed of herself for trying to suggest otherwise. She is using the plight of homeless and sad families for party political purposes.
Sir Anthony Durant : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the current legislation on homelessness works against ordinary families with children who are in need, who often find themselves on the housing list for years despite the fact that they are local people with a right to be housed ?
Mr. Gummer : I am sure that when the legislation on homelessness was introduced it was intended to give people access to local authority and housing association accommodation on the basis of need. It is clear that does not always happen, and it is sensible that we should try to ensure that in future it will. I do not understand why Opposition Members, who are supposedly interested in the provision of housing for those in priority need, find it impossible to join us in this effort and, instead, use the situation for sordid party political purposes.
Mr. Battle : On the subject of shame, is not the reality that here, the shame rests with the Conservative party ? Will the Secretary of State, instead of scapegoating single mothers and, now, the homeless in general and rubbing out people's right to a secure home by offering only a short- term break of six months in a private rented bedsit, cancel this uncalled- for, unwanted, back-to-basics-tainted review of the homelessness legislation, which is crudely geared to fiddling the homelessness figures-- doing to the homeless what the Government have done to the unemployed, and doing absolutely nothing to tackle the real housing and homelessness problem, which the Government are deliberately turning into a crisis ?
Mr. Gummer : I do not think that it is acceptable that a family with children living in very bad housing should wait and wait and wait while people who are statutorily homeless, even though they have a better roof over their heads, jump the queue. The hon. Gentleman ought to take the opportunity of his next article in the newspaper for which he writes regularly to explain that Conservatives want to ensure that choices are made entirely on the basis of need rather than on the basis of statutory entitlement. Until the hon. Gentleman is prepared to accept the bona fides of others, as we are prepared to accept his bona fides, he will have nothing to contribute to this debate.
Mr. Atkins : My Department is taking forward a comprehensive range of measures to encourage greater energy efficiency. These are set out in the Government's response to the Select Committee's report on energy efficiency in buildings, which was published yesterday, and also in the United Kingdom's climate change programme, which was launched by the Prime Minister on 25 January.
Mr. Stephen : Is my hon. Friend aware that the doubling of resources for the home energy efficiency scheme announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the November Budget has been widely welcomed throughout the country, especially by the elderly and disabled ? Will he ensure that the benefits of the scheme are made widely known throughout the country to those who may be eligible ?
Mr. Atkins : I am grateful to my hon. Friend ; he is right to draw attention to the fact that we are increasing the budget in that area, as in many others related to energy efficiency. I will certainly take to heart his strictures about ensuring that the public are even more aware of what is needed to improve energy efficiency.
Mr. George Howarth : Is it not time that the Minister admitted that all those documents and policies are long-gone pious hopes, short on realistic objectives ? The Energy Conservation Bill, which represents a practical way of doing something about the problems, passed unamended through its Committee stage this morning. Will the Minister now assure the House that on Report he will not seek to weaken the important principle in clause 2--the duty to survey properties--by providing the alternative of
Column 941a permissive principle, which would make the Bill a toothless tiger--or can we assume that is his real objective ?
Mr. Atkins : The hon. Gentleman was present this morning when the Standing Committee examined the matter at some length, and he will understand, as will the promoter of the Bill, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), that there are issues that cause some concern, and which are the subject of some consideration. In due course, we shall consider what action to take in relation to them.
Mr. Robert B. Jones : May I generally welcome the Government's response to the report of the Select Committee on the Environment, and its positive tone, as well as the responses of OFFER--the Office of Electricity Regulation--and the Energy Saving Trust ? But may I underline the fact that the EST clearly has problems in funding a very important programme that will be the key to fulfilling our obligations under the climate change convention ? May I therefore urge my hon. Friend to redouble his efforts to bring together the EST and the regulators to ensure that a solution is found to the problem and the funds produced ?
Mr. Alton : How can the Minister justify a formula that leads to children at risk in Birmingham being allotted £5,000 per head, whereas in Liverpool the sum is only £800 per head ? How can he justify a formula that leads to a city that has been afforded objective 1 status by the European Community losing about £17 million from its assessment in the current financial year ? Whereas local authorities across the country are receiving an average increase of more than 3 per cent., Liverpool will have a reduction of more than 1 per cent. In the circumstances, is the Minister now in a position to respond to the representations made to him by all the political parties on Liverpool city council ? They are still awaiting a reply.
Mr. Curry : The hon. Gentleman would know a little more about the justification for the standard spending assessments had he been in the House when we debated them, and had he voted on that occasion. He was not here. It is not my job to compensate for his previous absence. The SSA system has been worked out objectively ; it is a formula-based system, a means of dividing a fixed cake. The fact that Liverpool gets lots of benefits from other schemes is not relevant to the consideration. I told Liverpool clearly that if its representatives wished to discuss the way in which we took the SSA system forward
Column 942I should be perfectly willing to do that. I have made that offer to all the councils whose representatives have come to see me. This year's settlement was agreed by the House in the hon. Gentleman's absence.
Mr. Curry : Yes they are. In future years, the population estimates will be included until there is another census that will enable us to incorporate the actual figures. That is part of the continual updating of the system.
Mr. Baldry : We regularly receive correspondence on the subject of car boot sales from those who are concerned about the problems that badly managed events can sometimes cause and from others who regard car boots sales as a useful activity which is already adequately regulated.
Mr. Griffiths : As the Federation of Small Businesses fears that the abolition of market franchise rights will harm traditional village and town markets, what steps will the Minister take to ensure that honest market traders and consumers are protected from the minority of car boot sale cowboys ?
Mr. Baldry : There is a battery of regulation and legislation already in place which can be used to control car boot sales. It may be helpful to the House if I state that the Acts are the Trade Descriptions Act 1968, the Consumer Protection Act 1987, the Theft Act 19768, the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions.) Act 1976, the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984. Local authorities already have a wide range of powers to manage car boot sales. One wonders what further regulation the Labour party wants. Does it simply want to ban car boot sales altogether ?
Mr. Lidington : Will my hon. Friend please bear it in mind that well -managed car boot sales provide a useful source of income to many charities and voluntary organisations ? Will he try to avoid producing yet more well- intentioned legislation, which ends up letting the villains escape and trammelling decent people in yet more burdens of red tape ?
Mr. Baldry : As I have already made clear, there are at least eight Acts of Parliament that apply to the control of car boot sales. My hon. Friend makes a good point that there are large number of organisations, including voluntary and charitable organisations, that find car boot sales a useful way to legitimately raise funds.
Mr. Vaz : What is the real reason why the Government have reversed their policy on market deregulation from their statement contained in a letter from officials to the National Association of British Market Authorities on 11 March 1991 ? Will the Minister confirm that a change in franchise rights will allow car-boot cheats to thrive at the expense of honest traders ? It will be a crooks charter. Does
Column 943not he accept that failure to reimburse local authorities for any change in franchise rights would, in the words of his officials, "infringe the European convention on human rights"
as it amounts to expropriation without compensation ? When will the Minister clear up that mess ?
Mr. Baldry : I am somewhat boggle-minded at the idea that removing archaic rights given by the Crown many years ago to local authorities is somehow in contravention of the European convention on human rights, but I believe that anything can be said at Question Time. The point that the hon. Gentleman makes is completely bogus. The only right that market franchise rights give to a local authorities is to be able to object to a market being within six and two thirds of a mile on that day. As most car boot sales take place on a Sunday, it follows that market franchise rights have little, if any effect, in controlling car boot sales.
Mr. Burns : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply. If he were to come to Chelmsford to meet the leader of Chelmsford borough council, Councillor Wedon, he and the other Conservative councillors would explain how they have reduced the council tax bill by £20 in the current year while maintaining services. He would also hear that good work for the taxpayer will be undercut by the increases that Labour and Liberal- controlled Essex county council is imposing on charge payers by spending up to its standard spending assessment.
Mr. Curry : I know that the present leadership in Chelmsford has tried to pull back the council from the exorbitant levels of expenditure reached by the Liberal Democrat party and I am sad that those efforts will be undermined by the opposition parties of Essex county council. That will end the tradition of sound rule.
Mr. Skinner : Is the Minister aware that the Bolsover district council will travel to Chelmsford and they will pass all those cones on the M1 to discuss the important question of the landslip, which they discussed with the Minister, on
Column 944which six houses have already been demolished-- [Hon. Members :-- "Not in Chelmsford.] We are prepared to discuss it at Chelmsford, at Finchley, at Westminster
Mr. Hall : Does the Minister agree that there is sufficient evidence to suggest that shire counties' estimates of the transitional costs of the local government review are grossly exaggerated ? Does he agree that they have also grossly exaggerated the pay-back period of those transitional costs and that there are real savings to be made in the local government review ? Therefore, the shire counties' claim that the review will mean £100 on people's council taxes is erroneous. Does the Minister also agree that unitary authorities offer great scope for local government, particularly in Halton and Warrington borough councils which I represent ?
Mr. Baldry : In local government reorganisation, we must look at the opportunities that reorganisation presents to find ways in which services can be better delivered for the benefit of local people. I have absolutely no doubt that, up and down the country, people of all political complexions are coming together to find just that. We need to treat with suspicion some of the estimates of the costs of reorganisation presented by way of special pleading from particular groups from wherever they come. However, I hope that everyone considering the reorganisation of local government will consider ways in which long-term savings can be made as a consequence of reorganisation.
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