Lords amendments agreed to.
Read a Second time, and committed.
The Minister for Local Government and Planning (Mr. David Curry) : The Local Government Commission has submitted final recommendations for 10 shire county areas. It has published draft recommendations for 11 areas, and will publish its draft reports for a further 19 in July. It is on course to produce all its final reports by the end of the year.
Mr. Milburn : Is the Minister aware of the widespread support for single-tier authorities in many parts of the country, especially in former county boroughs such as Darlington ? Is he also aware, however, that the rerunning of the local government review in County Durham has caused great uncertainty among local authority staff, and great anger among local residents ? What assurances can the Minister give that he will not reject for a second time the overwhelming popular consensus in my town in favour of Darlington's running all its own local services ?
Mr. Curry : I am aware of the hon. Gentleman's concern for Darlington ; indeed, he has been to see me about it. The commission will produce its draft for County Durham--which, of course, includes Darlington- -on 12 July. I cannot judge the reaction to that draft, as I do not know what it will contain, but we are all anxious for the process to move forward, for the uncertainty to end and for proper dispositions to be made. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that what we need now is a sensible implementation of the proposals : at present, rather too many people appear to want to engage in trench warfare.
Mr. David Nicholson : No doubt my hon. Friend will wish to welcome yesterday's decision by the High Court. Most Conservative Members do not believe that such matters should be resolved through resort to litigation, and
Column 796I think that we all support the commission's proposals for Avon, Cleveland and many other areas. Will my hon. Friend bear in mind, however, the fact that--like my three right hon. and hon. Friends representing Somerset constituencies--I am still strongly opposed to its proposals for Somerset ?
Mr. Curry : I do, of course, welcome the court's ruling, but I must add that all it does is leave us where we wanted to be. I think that we should be a little cautious before we contemplate allowing every council in the land to decide to indulge in trench warfare through the courts : that will add to the uncertainty of the process. We do not have a great uniform mandate, or a secret plan to impose uniformity everywhere. I know my hon. Friend's views and those of his colleagues who represent Somerset. We shall have to take our view in a considered way when it is a sensible time to do so. I welcome what my hon. Friend said, but he will recognise that I am in the business not of imposing a draconian plan but of introducing sensible measures to serve local government, focused on the delivery of services. That is at the heart of the review.
Mr. Mandelson : Will the Minister reaffirm the Government's strong determination to create four unitary district-based councils in the present county of Cleveland ? In addition to the Local Government Commission, the overwhelming majority of the public, most local Members of Parliament, the Government themselves and now the High Court, too, support his opinion. Only the House of Commons has so far not been asked to express a view, and we expect that to happen with the minimum of delay.
Mr. Curry : The hon. Gentleman is right. The Government have expressed their view on the future of the Cleveland area--that the present county council should be succeeded by four district-based unitary authorities. The legal processes are not yet exhausted, as the hon. Gentleman will know, and I am reflecting on the situation in Cleveland. I hope that all those concerned will accept that it is now important to end the uncertainty so that we can get on with the business of change in a sensible measured way and ensure that it works.
Mr. Bates : Has my hon. Friend had the opportunity to consider carefully the judgment reached yesterday in the High Court ? It was a clear vindication of the way in which the commission conducted its affairs in Cleveland, and of the decision that it reached to abolish Cleveland county council. Will my hon. Friend therefore now consider an investigation into the way in which Cleveland county council has wasted tens of thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money in bringing that bogus case to the High Court in a vain attempt to save its own neck at the taxpayers' expense ?
Mr. Curry : The fact that the High Court has vindicated the position of the commission and the Government so completely is most helpful. I hope that all those concerned will realise that now the sensible step is to implement, so that services will be assured. The case has been argued exhaustively in the political and the legal arena, and it is now time to bring it to a conclusion and get on with the business of change so that people can see that it will work and so that we can put the services first. That is what the process is about.
Mr. Straw : As the Minister has spoken about the uncertainty surrounding the review, does he accept that if, before the general election, the Government had accepted the Labour amendment to the Local Government Act 1992--the Act which established the review--the uncertainty would not have arisen ?
I shall ask the Minister two questions, about staff and about start-up elections. Given the high degree of anxiety among staff about the review, will the Minister accept that the undertakings on staff transfer given by the former Secretary of State on 2 November 1992, which were to transfer the "vast majority" of staff automatically, and to provide proper compensation for those not transferred, must be honoured in full ? Does he also accept that start-up elections for all councillors must be held at the beginning of any transfer period in every new unitary council, including those based on existing districts ?
Mr. Curry : The hon. Gentleman asked two questions. As for the elections, I am now reflecting on whether it is still feasible to set up the successor authorities in Cleveland directly next May. There has been a significant delay, and the important aim is that the system should get off the ground effectively, with sensible arrangements.
On staffing, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that we are consulting now on draft compensation terms for staff up to the age of 50. Those terms are for general use as well as for specific use in the local government reorganisation, and they would mean that someone up to the age of 50 could receive compensation worth 66 weeks' salary--the present maximum is 24 weeks'. There are also mandatory safety net proposals specific to the local government reorganisation, and generous enhanced pension arrangements for people over 50. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will meet Unison and the associations next week, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State or I will be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss those matters. This is a consultation document, and clearly, we take consultation seriously.
3. Mr. Harry Greenway : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment how many homes have been sold under right-to-buy legislation in (a) Ealing borough and (b) the rest of the country ; what plans he has to extend the right to buy ; and if he will make a statement.
The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. John Selwyn Gummer) : Public sector landlords in England have sold about 1.5 million homes since 1980. Some 1,166,000 of those were right-to-buy sales by local authorities, including around 6,000 sold by Ealing. We have no immediate plans to extend the right to buy further.
Mr. Greenway : Does my right hon. Friend agree that no council tenant in Ealing or in any other part of the country would have had the right to buy his or her home if the Labour party had had its way ? The bitterness with which Labour opposed the right to buy had to be seen to be believed. Has not the time now come to make equal citizens of all tenants in the public sector, including housing association tenants ? Has not the time come to extend the right to buy to them--whatever the Labour party says ?
Mr. Gummer : It is interesting that the Labour party has opposed every single housing reform presented by the Government, then, when it has found that it is unpopular with the electorate, it has gradually had to give way. The fact is that there would be no right to buy if this Government had not been in power. The Labour party has no ideas about how to improve our housing stock.
On the two occasions on which the extension of the right to buy has been put before the Houses of Parliament, it has not been carried. There is now, of course, considerable support for house building by the private sector as well as by the housing associations, so the situation is rather different.
Mr. Khabra : During the last year of the Labour Government, 100,000 houses were built. Last year, only 1,000 houses were built. The housing associations cannot fill that gap. Is not it common sense for the Government to allow councils to replace those assets and to make a contribution towards the Government's so-called stated objective of reducing the number of families who suffer the hardships of overcrowding and homelessness ?
Mr. Gummer : As the hon. Gentleman knows, the fact is that housing associations are making a major contribution. In the areas where local authorities have sensibly sold their entire stock to housing associations, those who live as tenants of housing associations find that the arrangements are very much better. I hope to see a further extension of that. The hon. Gentleman talks with expertise about the London borough of Ealing. There is no doubt whatever that the performance of the Conservatives in Ealing far outweighed that of the Labour council which we now, sadly, have.
Mr. Tracey : My right hon. Friend clearly recognises that there is a desire on the part of housing association tenants for the right to buy. May I press him a little further on a commitment by the Government to extending the right to buy to housing association tenants ?
Mr. Gummer : My hon. Friend will agree that the situation has changed somewhat. Significant private investment is now taking place in housing associations which must make the situation rather different. It is a matter of fact that on the two occasions on which the other place was presented with the opportunity to extend the right to buy, it decided that it was not prepared to go along that route. However, I am always open to suggestions and I am happy to talk to my hon. Friend about the matter.
The Minister for the Environment and Countryside (Mr. Robert Atkins) : Our assessments of the effects of various motor fuels on air quality have, over time, resulted in the introduction of unleaded petrol and a significant reduction in the use of lead in petrol. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will shortly lay before the House regulations that will lower petrol volatility and further reduce the sulphur content of diesel.
Mrs. Mahon : Given the growing problem of asthma, which has almost doubled in every region of Britain over the past 10 years, and the growing evidence that hydrocarbons and benzene cause cancer, is not it time for the Government to take a good, hard look at the problem and to start working towards a good public transport system so that we can reduce airborne emissions which do so much harm ?
Mr. Atkins : As the parent of a severe asthma sufferer, I have some sympathy with the earlier part of the hon. Lady's question. However, I do not think that whether transport is private or public makes any difference to emissions--whether diesel or petrol--and the hon. Lady should clarify that in her mind. She is certainly right to suggest that the Government ought to be doing something about the matter--and we are.
Mr. Robert B. Jones : Does my hon. Friend agree that natural gas vehicles, especially light vans and lorries, contribute greatly to the reduction of pollution and noise ? Will he seek to ensure, with my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor, that there are no tax barriers to the introduction of more of those vehicles, as that would make our streets and communities cleaner and quieter ?
Mr. Simon Hughes : Following the report of the urban air quality review group, which I know the Minister has seen, and its recommendation to the effect that diesel fuel is now not environmentally good news, will the hon. Gentleman seriously consider, with Ministers at the Department of Transport, giving advice to consumers on what is the most environmentally acceptable form of fuel for the private motor car and what is the most environmentally sound form of transport ? Perhaps that would be a better use of star ratings than giving them to hospitals in the health service.
Mr. Atkins : The hon. Gentleman asks an extremely confused question. I shall endeavour not to give him a confused reply. It is true that any fuel used in any vehicle cannot be said to be completely safe--of course it cannot. Therefore, the work being done by my Department, the Department of Transport and the Department of Health among others to investigate the pros and cons--the advantages and disadvantages--of different fuels is continuing. When we know which is best, we shall be in a better to position to provide answers to the hon. Gentleman's questions. Until that time, I will not be drawn.
Mr. George Howarth : I thank the Minister for that helpful answer. Does he agree that each form of fuel available for use in motor cars has its own risks ? Does he also accept that, bearing in mind the problems with lead in some fuels, with benzene in other fuels and with particulates in diesel, the choice of which fuel to use is a baffling one from the motorist's point of view ? Does he accept the European Commission expert committee's recommendation that there should be a full assessment in each member state of the relative risks of each fuel ?
Mr. Atkins : With my hon. Friend the Minister for Roads and Traffic, I chair the green motoring forum, which exists to draw together those in the industry and those working in environmental areas to try to establish the
Column 800answers to just the sort of questions that the hon. Gentleman asked--so, he has a fair point. I know that there is some confusion and, as a driver of both a diesel car and a petrol car-- [Hon. Members :-- "Simultaneously ?"]--not simultaneously--I should be interested to hear the specialist advice. We are certainly abiding by everything that the EC Commission has asked us to and we will continue that.
Mr. Mans : Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems about emissions into the atmosphere is that they come not from new vehicles, whatever their power source, but from used vehicles that have not been properly maintained ? Would he therefore consider discussing with colleagues in the Department of Transport a tightening up of the MOT so that we can set an emissions standard for used vehicles ?
Mr. Atkins : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. When I was the Minister responsible for roads, I was instrumental in bringing the emissions test into the MOT, so I have considerable sympathy with what my hon. Friend says. It is imperative that that standard should be improved year on year, so that we address the problems of used and old cars.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Tony Baldry) : Where the development of new initiatives for local government is best undertaken by using pilot projects, we naturally welcome the assistance of local authorities with such projects.
Mr. Cohen : Will the Minister look at the current practice in the United States, where state and city councils have the freedom and the funding to pilot environmental, social and work schemes, the best of which can be taken up by the national Government ? By contrast, in this country, local authorities are under uniform restrictions, which stop them responding to the new in a diverse and innovative way. Why does not the Minister free up local authorities so that some creative programmes may emerge ?
Mr. Baldry : I do not know where the hon. Gentleman has been recently. If he visits any local authority in the country, he will see that the authorities are all busy working up bids for the single regeneration budget to enable them to do exactly what he is suggesting.
Mr. Dunn : Can the Minister give an assurance that no pilot projects relating to housing matters will be given to inner-London Labour-controlled councils, as those councils have presided over incompetence, corruption and scandal in their housing departments and have in their stocks many thousands of houses available for letting to homeless people which they cannot possibly carry forward ?
Column 801he tell us the amount of resources that has been allocated by the Government to the excellent councils of Birmingham and Manchester ? When does he intend to extend that pilot project to other local authorities in Britain--or is this, like all the other inner-city projects launched by the Government, a project launched in a blaze of glory and forgotten six months later ?
Mr. Baldry : City pride is not a pilot project ; it is an initiative to take forward pride in the cities. I was in Birmingham on Monday, and I am glad to say that Birmingham council is making good progress with city pride. I have absolutely no doubt that it will be building on what has also been done in Manchester. There is, of course, absolutely nothing to stop other authorities developing best practice, looking at what is happening with city pride and pursuing similar initiatives.
The hon. Gentleman must also go around and look at what local authorities are doing in working up bids for the single regeneration budget, by means of which they will also be able to encourage pride in their own cities and undertake a whole host of initiatives which we are helping to fund.
Mr. Dickens : Returning to the original question from the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen), does my hon. Friend agree that representatives of the Department of the Environment have been to America to look at its schemes ? The city challenge scheme was started in America and was introduced in this country. We have also had lots of local initiatives, such as estate action schemes, which are very popular. We have more initiatives than any other Government have put forward relying on pilot schemes with local government.
Mr. Baldry : My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. With initiatives such as city challenge, housing action trusts and estate action, which give greater freedom and greater responsibility to local tenants and local communities, we do not need to go to the Americans. I am glad to say that many people are coming to this country to see the success of our inner-city initiatives.
Mr. Atkins : My right hon. Friend maintains no central record of development proposals. Local planning authorities are statutorily required to consult English Nature over planning applications which are likely to affect sites of special scientific interest. All relevant considerations are taken into account at this stage in the planning process.
Mr. Austin-Walker : Undoubtedly, the Minister is aware that some 300 sites of special scientific interest have been damaged in the past two years, and that the National Audit Office, in its report last month, says that the damage is understated ? Can the Minister give an assurance that when the habitats directive is implemented and the special areas of conservation are designated, that will not lead to an erosion of the already inadequate protection of those sites of special scientific interest that have not been designated ? As 160 sites are threatened by the
Column 802Government's roads programme, before the Secretary of State leaves office, can he give an assurance about the future safety of Oxleas wood ?
Mr. Atkins : We are proud of our record on sites of special scientific interest. A suggestion by any Labour Member that there has been substantial damage is at complete variance with the facts. We are talking about a small number. Since 1987, only one site has been lost completely ; of the other existing sites, less than 3 per cent. have been damaged, and that damage will be restored in time. The hon. Gentleman asks a sensible question about the eventual transposition of the habitats directive and what it will do. I can certainly give him the assurance that he seeks.
Mr. Jacques Arnold : Has my hon. Friend noted that Ashenbank wood in the parish of Cobham in my constituency is a site of special scientific interest and stands directly in the route of that very large project, the high-speed rail link ? Will he, together with his colleagues at the Department of Transport, ensure that the environment is safeguarded at that point ?
Mr. Atkins : My hon. Friend is a doughty fighter for his constituents' interests. If he would like to talk to me after Question Time, I am sure that we can arrange to discuss the matter so that I can do what I can to help.
Mr. Chris Smith : Is not it scandalous that no central record is kept by the Government of potentially damaging developments at the most precious ecological sites in this country ? How can the Government possibly be proud of the fact that more than 300 SSSIs have been damaged in past two years ? When on earth will the Government come forward with proper proposals to implement the European habitats directive ? Will it be a half- baked, inadequate attempt which is brought in at the last possible moment, as so often is the case under this Government ?
Mr. Atkins : The hon. Gentleman is using synthetic indignation. He knows full well that the Government's record on SSSIs, on the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and on a variety of other environmental activities is far better than that of his party and of the Labour Government. What is more, the hon. Gentleman knows that environmental groups do not think that the Labour party's policy stands up to ours.
Mr. Waterson : Has my hon. Friend had an opportunity to discuss with the Secretary of State his visit to Beachy Head in my constituency, a very well-known SSSI which, until relatively recently, was threatened by a massive over-development sponsored by the Liberal Democrats majority on the borough council ?
Mr. Atkins : My right hon. Friend tells me that he went to the edge, looked over and decided that he was very much against what was being suggested. I will take on board what my hon. Friend says and endeavour to ensure that what he wants happens.
7. Mr. Spellar : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the effect of material shortages and increasing land prices on the revival in the construction industry.
The Minister for Housing, Inner Cities and Construction (Sir George Young) : There is very little evidence at present of widespread or significant shortages of building materials or land. Construction output is now increasing and new work orders are 6 per cent. higher than they were a year ago.
companies--particularly those in the house-building sector--they will tell him that lead times for the delivery of bricks a month ago were 10 weeks, but are now 18 months. The brick mountain has gone, many of our brick companies have been mothballed and we are facing a severe crisis in building materials. Should not he and his Department be taking action to make sure that any upturn in the building industry is not constrained by major supply shortages ?
Sir George Young : At the moment, there are 893 million bricks in stock--enough to build a 6 ft wall between London and China. I would be amazed if any shortage of bricks held up the recovery in the construction industry.
Sir Michael Neubert : Would not it be an extremely cost-effective contribution to the revival in the building and construction industry if greater attention were given to the declining and deteriorating condition of many hundreds of thousands of existing properties, and if greater priority were given to reversing that decline in those national assets ?
Sir George Young : I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. There is a great deal of value for money to be obtained in making far better use of existing housing stock. The public sector has a role to play with improvement grants, but the prime responsibility for maintaining buildings in good condition must rest with the owner. Building societies and insurance companies have a common interest, and I should welcome any initiative launched by the house-building industry to generate interest on the part of home owners in maintaining their properties in better condition. As my hon. Friend has said, that will feed through to the building materials industry.
Mr. Henderson : Will not the right hon. Gentleman for once bury his newly acquired dogma--the dogma of the Government for 15 years--and be honest ? The Government tell the building industry that they want to see it boosted. Is not the simple, sensible and obvious way to do that to release the £5.5 billion that councils have from the sale of their own assets to allow them to build badly needed homes, and to provide badly needed jobs for thousands of unemployed building workers ?
Sir George Young : A recent survey of the building industry revealed that 94 per cent. of respondents believed that the construction market would be in a better condition in 12 months' time. For all of us in the House who are worried about unemployment, the good news is that more than 70 per cent. of firms expect to increase their staffing levels.
Mr. Allason : Is not one of the obstacles to the recovery of the construction business the length of time that it takes to get permission to start building ? Is he aware of the difficulty that has been experienced by Paignton zoo in my constituency ? It has put in an application for a review by
Column 804the Department of the Environment, which will not be answered until September, although the original inspector's report was ready by April.
Sir George Young : I know that my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Planning has taken steps to reduce the delay before a planning inquiry is set up and before a decision is announced. The response time is now falling. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister listened closely to the question from my hon. Friend, and that he will take it up.
Mr. Tyler : Can the Secretary of State confirm or deny the frequent media reports that he has made a personal bid to get £100 million from the Exchequer to assist the water charge payers of the south-west ? Can he also tell us whether it is true that he has been unsuccessful in that bid ?
Mr. Gummer : The hon. Gentleman has a closer relationship with the press, which has made those comments, than perhaps the House is aware. The last time that I met him and his friends, a wholly fictitious report of our meeting reached the press before hand. We can take it that those other reports contain the same degree of truth as his original statement.
Mr. Nicholls : Is my right hon. Friend aware that the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) has been wandering around the west country telling people that if water charges were based on the council tax banding, those charges would fall ? Would my right hon. Friend care to remind people that if council tax banding were used as the basis for water charges, the result would be a small reduction in the bills of some people while a great many other people would face increased charges ? Does he agree that the Liberals would be better off supporting the efforts that the Government have been making in the European context to bring some real relief to the hard-pressed people of the west country ?
Mr. Gummer : My hon. Friend is perfectly right, but then the Liberals have produced all kinds of statements of that sort. When they were pressed during the European elections to say how they would achieve the end that they had in view, they could produce no feasible scheme. The difference between the parties in the south-west is that the Conservatives are seeking to find an effective answer and the Liberals are trying to gain votes.
Mr. Jamieson : Is the Secretary of State aware that, since privatisation, water bills in the south-west have nearly doubled ? Some pensioners in my constituency are now paying 10 per cent. of their income in water bills alone. When will he stop making pious promises and give some categorical assurances to the people of the south-west that help is on its way ?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not join with the Liberals on this issue because he should realise that although considerable difficulties have been caused by the increase in the price of water in the south-west, the reason is that it has been necessary to improve the quality of the water and the infrastructure, which was left to run down under public ownership. The fact is that privatisation has made it possible to improve water services.
Mrs. Browning : Is my right hon. Friend aware that many single- person households believe that their water charges could be reduced with the installation of a meter ? However, in the south-west, it costs £240 up front to have a meter installed--a prohibitive cost, especially when it is compared with the charge by Anglian Water of just £140. Will my right hon. Friend consider how difficult it is for such people to have a meter installed ?
Mr. Gummer : I will certainly look at my hon. Friend's example. Anglian Water has a good reputation for the help that it has been giving. My hon. Friend will agree that, in seeking help for those with high water bills, the work that has been done by Conservative Members and the Government in the European Community has been exemplary. It would be helpful if we had a bit of support from Liberal Members.
10. Sir Teddy Taylor : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment by what percentage domestic water rates have changed in each of the past three years ; and if he will make a statement outlining the reasons for such changes.
Mr. Gummer : The average unmetered household bill for water and sewerage services in England and Wales has risen by 4.1., 6.5. and 6.2 per cent. respectively in real terms over the past three years. Those increases have been necessary to help pay for the massive programme of investment which the water industry is undertaking.
Sir Teddy Taylor : Is the Secretary of State aware of the view in the water industry that much of that increase, which causes great hardship, is the result of improvements in standards that are not necessary for public health ? Is that the case, and how does my right hon. Friend see prices moving over the next three years ?
Mr. Gummer : On the movement of prices, the water regulator has made it clear that he hopes that the increase will be between 0 and 2 per cent. above inflation in the period approaching 2000. My hon. Friend will be pleased that that is significantly less than the figures that I have announced. Although we might disagree about standards in some areas, those being demanded in general are those that the people of Britain expect in order to have the quality of water and beaches that they want and the improvements in the sewerage arrangements that are necessary. Privatisation has made that possible and I support the standards set down by the European Union.
Mrs. Helen Jackson : Is the Secretary of State aware that, in the five years since privatisation, charges have risen partly because profits have increased by £6.8 billion in all the water companies in England and Wales ? That is more than double what the Director General of Water Services said was appropriate as recently as 1991. What will the Secretary of State do to ensure that that enormous surplus profit is called back so that the investment is not charged over and over again to the domestic water consumer ?
Mr. Gummer : I am sure that the hon. Lady will look carefully at what the water regulator will announce on 28 July. She will be able to follow the figures clearly. The water regulator will, quite properly, take those into account. The hon. Lady attacked the water companies, but since privatisation they have become one of Britain's most important sources of exports and investment. As one goes round the world, from America to Malaysia to Australia, one sees that British water companies are winning contracts throughout the world. The industry won hardly a contract when it was nationalised.
Mr. Ian Bruce : Can my right hon. Friend resolve the dichotomy between the calls from Liberal Democrat Members urging the Government to speed up the cleaning up of our beaches and water and their cries when they are on the doorsteps that we should reduce water bills ?
Madam Speaker : Order. I have cautioned hon. Members time and again about asking questions that do not concern Government policy. Questions should not relate to other parties in the House. I hope that I shall not have to give further lectures on that matter. Will the Secretary of State attempt to answer the question ?
Mr. Gummer : The Government's policy is to point out that if we are to have better standards, we must pay for them. That is the only possibility. The dichotomy is resolved by saying that. Those, like the Liberals, who have a different policy on each doorstep in order to win votes, never have to resolve a dichotomy.