The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. John Selwyn Gummer): Yes, through the combination of a strong national economy, sensible planning and specific measures such as city challenge to unlock local commitment.
Mr. Evennett: Is my right hon. Friend aware of the growing problems in the towns of Crayford and Erith in my constituency and in Bexleyheath shopping centre, caused by the proliferation of new out-of-town shopping developments? Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital that we restore and revitalise our town centres so that they do not become ghost towns? We must have more investment, life and jobs in our town centres to make them vibrant once again.
Mr. Gummer: I have made it clear that I believe that the future development of stores should encourage and enhance town centres wherever possible. We have made that clear in policy planning guidance notes 6 and 13 and I shall be issuing some further directions.
Mr. Vaz: Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to answer the questions that were put to him more than six months ago following the reversal of his discredited planning policy, which has blighted thousands of businesses in towns and city centres? What assistance does he intend to provide to those local authorities and businesses that have had to sit back helplessly during the past 15 years while the Government have slavishly supported the principle of out-of-town developments--a policy which has undermined the effectiveness of local councils and businesses in their attempts to regenerate towns and city centres? What will he do to compensate those councils and businesses for his mistakes?
Mr. Gummer: I recognise that the hon. Gentleman is concerned to climb on board Conservative policy in these matters and I know that he is extremely embarrassed by the fact that he did not think of it first. But the fact is that out-of-town shopping centres have played an important role in the new kind of retailing in which Britain leads. There is a balance to be gained, on which I am determined to insist. I do not want to stop those developments that are there, but I do want
Column 258to ensure that, as far as possible in future, any developments will enhance the city centres. That is a perfectly reasonable balanced policy, but, as such, it is unlikely to attract the hon. Gentleman.
Mr. David Martin: Will my right hon. Friend do all that he can to promote the sometimes novel idea these days that people should live in city centres, so that they do not turn into ghost towns at night and so that we have a mix of commercial premises, shops and residences where they should be, as well as out of town?
Mr. Gummer: The genius of towns is that they are places where people can live, work, shop and take their leisure together. One of the disadvantages that has arisen in recent years--often as a result of the municipal policy of councils that did not want mixed development--has been that people have been pushed out to the edge of towns instead of giving the life that is necessary to the centre.
The Minister for the Environment and Countryside (Mr. Robert Atkins): Total United Kingdom emissions of nitrogen oxides, expressed as nitrogen dioxide equivalents, increased from 1984 to 1990 by 540,000 tonnes, and have since declined year by year. Emissions in 1992, the latest year for which validated figures are available, were 110,000 tonnes below the peak values.
Mrs. Dunwoody: Despite that, the Minister knows that air pollution is an increasing problem in towns and that bad air is triggering even more attacks in children who suffer from asthma. Why does not he just accept that money spent on an integrated transport system would not only save many people in Britain from greater discomfort, but would clean up and improve the air for all of us in our city centres?
Mr. Atkins: I agreed with the earlier part of the hon. Lady's question. I have a daughter who suffers from asthma and I know at first hand in my family the problems experienced by asthmatics, so I have considerable sympathy with the hon. Lady's point of view. It is no use assuming that pollution is the Government's fault, however. We all create pollution in one form or another and all use vehicles in one form or another, so pollution is partly of our own creation. But the Government recognise the importance of reducing pollution, which is why we spent money on research and, in conjunction with the Department of Health, are examining ways and means of improving the situation--and why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport made some interesting and pertinent announcements a week or two ago that will contribute to alleviating the problem that concerns the hon. Lady.
Column 259Minister confirm that the Government are arguing for increases in petrol duty above those already planned and for cuts in the road-building programme? Will he back the launch today of the clean air through oxygen campaign for the oxygenation of fuel to cut emissions?
Mr. Atkins: I cannot comment on matters that are for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be as pleased as I am that my right hon. Friend is taking the action to which he referred. As to oxygenation, I am interested--as are our expert advisers--in any schemes or products that could help to reduce pollution. However, the value of oxygenates remains unknown and some claims made for them have not been proven. There is a long way to go before the action that the hon. Gentleman suggests could be known to be helpful.
Mr. Chris Smith: The Government may not be entirely at fault for rising levels of air pollution and asthma, but Government inaction must carry a substantial part of the blame. Why is it that this country has only 34 national nitrogen dioxide monitoring stations? Why did the Government decide recently not to make monitoring a statutory duty for local authorities? Above all, why do the Government refuse to adopt a properly integrated transport strategy, which would be the long-term answer to the problem?
Mr. Atkins: At long last we have an admission from the hon. Gentleman, as opposed to an emission, that the Government are not wholly at fault. I go further, and suggest that the Government have an extremely good record on emissions. We are meeting all the deadlines that the European Union requires of us and have plans for improvements. As to monitoring stations, I take guidance from my specialist and technical advisers--as would the hon. Gentleman if he were in my position. We are advised that the monitoring devices and their location are as good as anywhere in Europe. I am entirely confident that the results that we are receiving from those devices are entirely accurate and give a fair picture of what needs to be done.
Mr. Robathan: I am sure that my hon. Friend will be glad to know that I do not consider that the Government are blameworthy in this sphere-- [Interruption] --which makes a change. Will my hon. Friend the Minister support increased research into electric vehicles, which could have a major impact on reducing inner-city pollution? Will he, together with his colleagues in the Department of Transport, further encourage cycling in cities and outside them, and consider the use--particularly in London--of the river, which is totally under-used? That could go some way to reducing congestion and improving air purity in our cities.
Mr. Atkins: My hon. Friend makes some interesting points. I will ensure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and my hon. Friend the Minister for Transport in London are made aware of those concerns.
3. Ms Church: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment when he plans to meet representatives of the local authority associations to discuss the settlement of local government finance for 1995-96.
12. Mr. Khabra: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment when he plans to meet representatives of the local authority associations to discuss the settlement of local government finance for 1995-96.
13. Mr. Jim Cunningham: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment when he plans to meet representatives of the local authority associations to discuss the settlement of local government finance for 1995 -96.
Ms Church: When the Minister discussed those plans with local authority associations, did he give them an assurance that the report in the Local Government Chronicle on 7 October, to the effect that he did not put up a fight against Treasury plans to freeze local authority expenditure, was untrue? Can he assure the House that the Treasury plans published in the Red Book will not be cut further, leading to additional cuts in vital services and higher unemployment?
Mr. Curry: The local authority associations had obviously seen that report, and my right hon. Friend, if I am quoting him accurately, said that they should not believe everything that they read in the paper.
Mr. Khabra: Will the Secretary of State outline to the House what steps he is taking to remove the anomaly that exists in the local government revenue support grant settlement, whereby six outer London authorities have no choice but to pay their teachers the inner London weighting allowance, whereas it is calculated in the standard spending assessments that they must pay only the outer London weighting allowance? That is an anomaly. Will the Minister answer the question, please?
Mr. Curry: I understand that the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) is meeting representatives about that this afternoon. But I can be helpful to the hon. Gentleman. His question touches on the earlier cost adjustment--the sums that are directed towards the south-east area to compensate for higher labour costs. I made it clear to the House last year that I was not satisfied with the way in which those sums were directed in the south-east area, and that I would therefore review the relationship between central London and outer London and the taper towards the south-east. I shall propose changes to that when we announce the rate support settlement, and I hope that they will give some satisfaction to the hon. Gentleman.
Mr. Jim Cunningham: Why is it that, in the previous SSA settlement for local government, the Secretary of State did not take into account the Prime Minister's pledge to help people who could not afford to pay VAT? Many of my constituents find that, when
Column 261they apply for a community charge rebate, the assistance that they get for VAT is taken into account. Will the Minister do something about that?
Mr. Curry: With respect, the hon. Gentleman misunderstands the purpose of the SSA systems. Compensation for VAT has been announced in the context of the pensions measure. As regards the SSA, we try to distribute an amount according to the needs of local authorities and their ability to deliver a standard system. The hon. Gentleman came with representatives from Coventry last year to discuss certain matters. In the present settlement those matters will, of course, have been put right from his point of view, so I hope that he will be satisfied.
Sir Peter Fry: When my hon. Friend speaks to the local authority representatives, will he make it clear not only that there should be concern over the way in which the area costs adjustment is currently calculated but that fundamental change is needed to prevent the kind of unfairness that currently exists, particularly in counties such as Northamptonshire, which has suffered considerably as a result of not being included in the adjustment?
Mr. Curry: I know that my hon. Friend is very concerned about that. I have met him and his fellow Members of Parliament from the county, and we have plans for a further meeting quite shortly on the matter. I recognise that the area cost adjustment is, of course, liked very much by those who receive it and that those who do not receive it find it difficult. It is a question of balance. I hope to get the most sensible balance that we possibly can in that area.
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman: May I inform my hon. Friend that my constituents are interested not only in how much money is provided but in how it is spent? They are therefore extremely anxious to secure the abolition of the high-spending Lancashire county council, but unfortunately the county has seen fit to spend huge sums of ratepayers' money circulating to every head teacher, every head governor and every Lancashire county council employee a wholly distorted view. We very much hope that the commission will not permit itself to be influenced by that wholly unfair action on the county council's part.
Mr. Curry: Whether or not moneys have been spent legally is a matter for the district auditor. As regards the future structure of Lancashire, until the Local Government Commission issues its recommendations I have no role to play. When it does so, I have no doubt whatever that my hon. Friend will be one of the first through the doors.
Mr. Jacques Arnold: But is it not the case that Conservative local authorities tend to get less Government grant per head but nevertheless charge the lowest council taxes on average? Is not that best exemplified by Gravesham borough council, which, in its last year of Conservative rule, had the lowest council tax in Kent, yet which, in its first year of Labour rule, already had the fourth lowest?
Column 262borough council for the excellent way in which it administers the funds in north Kent. It plays a very important role in the whole of our strategy for the area.
Mr. Rooker: When considering the settlement for 1995-96, will the Minister pay attention to the country's second city? Birmingham funded the international convention centre with only its own taxpayers' money and European money, but the Conservative central council will meet there next year only if it receives a £53,000 grant and subvention. The Tory party should pay its own way before using Birmingham's facilities.
Mr. Curry: The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that once a local authority has received grant, it can use it for the purposes that it deems most fit for the area. Birmingham chose to devote its funds to the construction of facilities. Contractual relationships between Birmingham and anyone else are entirely a matter for those concerned.
Mr. Waterson: Is my hon. Friend aware that East Sussex county council, which currently enjoys the benefits of a Lib-Lab pact in its ruling group, appears to have overspent by £1 million so far this year on its social services budget? When my hon. Friend comes to use his powers both in terms of the settlement and by way of capping, will he bear in mind the profligacy of many Labour and Liberal Democrat-controlled authorities?
Mr. Curry: As my hon. Friend knows, we issue the rate support grant in consideration of the needs of local authorities; the limits to which they are allowed to spend have no political colour. It is an absolutely objective system, the Opposition party accepts that it is objective and while I hold this job it will continue to be objective.
Does the Minister understand that the universal capping of council budgets is not only unjustified and undemocratic, but has failed to work in its own terms? That, by the way, is what many members of the Minister's own party are now saying.
Will the Minister confirm that six Conservative
associations--including one in Croydon, in the constituency of the new Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Sir P. Beresford)--submitted resolutions to this month's Conservative party conference which called for capping to be scrapped? Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that so great was the fear that those resolutions might be carried that not one of them was called? When will he recognise that nothing symbolises the over-centralisation of the country more than authoritarian ministerial control over services that local communities should be free to provide?
Mr. Curry: I am perfectly aware that capping is not popular with all councillors, including some Conservative councillors. I am not ashamed about that; they are quite free to express their opinions. But there are other considerations, such as what the nation can afford and the requirements of public finance. I should be obliged if the hon. Gentleman would tell me whether he intends, in the first year of a hypothetical Labour
Column 263Government, to abolish capping immediately and allow local authorities to spend all the accumulated receipts without restraint. That would be a very important contribution to public finances.
Mr. Gummer: By encouraging retailers to develop forms of retailing which can, where possible, locate in places, such as town centres, where everyone can benefit from the competition and choice that they bring.
Mrs. Lait: Is my right hon. Friend aware that Boots Properties is currently finalising plans for exactly the kind of town-centre shopping development that he has recommended? Does he agree that such town-centre shopping provides access for all--both those with and those without cars-- and also has benefits in terms of car emissions? Will he give some further information about the timing and content of the planning guidance that he has said that he intends to publish?
Mr. Gummer: It would be wrong for me to comment on the specific example given by my hon. Friend, because it might be the subject of a review by the Department and by me. I certainly believe, however, that encouraging larger stores to play their part in the revivification of town centres will be good for everyone. It will provide opportunities for those without access to motor cars. That will be a necessary part of any concept of sustainable development in the future.
I hope to extend the information on the current planning guidance pretty soon.
Mr. Stevenson: Does the Secretary of State accept that traditional town and city-centre markets are an important part of the retail industry? Does he recognise that, in their dash for deregulation, the Government propose to remove local-authority market franchise rights? That will cause severe damage in areas such as my constituency in Stoke-on-Trent. Will the Secretary of State instigate an urgent review on this piece of Government dogma before the damage is done to our inner cities and town centres?
Mr. Gummer: I have looked at this matter carefully because not only the hon. Gentleman but my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Sir M. Neubert) and others have raised the issue with me. I hope to be able to make an announcement soon.
Mr. David Nicholson: I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the necessary, and probably overdue, issue of planning guidance that protects our town and city centres against out-of-town developments. That is desirable. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the guidance is sensitive enough to enable councillors to object to undesirable urban developments such as the proposed removal in Taunton of the facilities offered by the County hotel and their replacement by retailing facilities?
Column 264specific case. There may be good reasons for deciding not to agree to a development. Not long ago, I turned down, on appeal, a development in the centre of Ludlow. I believe that there are cases when the proposed development is unacceptable either for design or for other reasons. We must then take appropriate measures. Generally, most people in Britain would like to see a further enhancement of our city and town centres rather than development outside. They do not object to much that has been built outside because it provides services that people want and has changed the way retailing takes place. However, they do not want it to be overdone.
Mr. Pike: We welcome the Government's change to supporting our town centres and shopping areas within those centres. However, will the Secretary of State recognise that the change in retailing increasingly means that small corner shops are closing in outer areas of town? Will he realise that people who depend on those shops need public transport? It is essential that we have good public transport to our town centres and retail shopping areas. It is also essential that the needs of the disabled are protected in those new shopping areas because it is increasingly difficult for many disabled people to get round the new type of shops.
Mr. Gummer: I doubt whether it is increasingly difficult for disabled people. Many of the newer shops provide better facilities for the disabled and I am impressed by some of the changes that have taken place in some of the large retail outlets recently. I remind the hon. Gentleman that nearly 50 per cent. of the budget of the Department of Transport is spent on public transport when it accounts for only 10 per cent. of journeys.
5. Mr. Raynsford: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment how many households were accepted as homeless by local authorities in England during the last 12 months; how many were living in temporary accommodation at the end of this period; and what were the equivalent figures for 1979.
Mr. Curry: In the year ending June 1994, 128,000 households were accepted as statutorily homeless by local authorities in England; in 1979, 56,000 households were so accepted. At 30 June 1994, 51,450 households were living in temporary accommodation; no comparable figure is held for 1979.
Mr. Raynsford: Does the Minister recognise that the disgraceful increase in the number of homeless and in the numbers in temporary accommodation, which I can assure the Minister has risen fivefold since the early 1980s, reflects in part the behaviour of certain councils such as Westminster which has been deliberately keeping council properties empty and for sale while leaving homeless families in temporary accommodation? If the inquiry that begins today confirms the district auditor's preliminary finding that Lady Porter was guilty of improper, disgraceful and unlawful conduct, will the Minister be the first to condemn her?
Column 265from other boroughs to fill the empty houses even though they are in need. The hon. Gentleman needs to look a little closer to home and he will find some of the answers to his questions.
On Westminster, if there is proven to be any wrongdoing, we will condemn it as we have always said we would. That is a matter for the auditor, not for the Government and I am not involved.
Mr. Thomason: Does my hon. Friend agree that the private sector provides accommodation for many people who would otherwise be homeless? Will he confirm that, unlike the Labour party, the Government wish to support and encourage the development of the private sector?
Mr. Curry: That is true. The number of households living in the private sector has increased from about 1.6 million to almost 2 million, which is welcome. We clearly wish to sustain that development. It depends heavily, of course, on housing benefit. It may also depend to some extent on people who have empty property and are unable to sell it. We need to keep looking at ways in which we can ensure that the private rented sector continues to fulfil housing needs in Britain.
Mr. Battle: Will the Minister confirm that his Department has received the preliminary results of the research it commissioned by Pat Niner at Birmingham university on the homelessness code of guidance? When does the Minister intend to publish that research, or will the Government's intended changes to homeless law be introduced in the next 12 months, regardless of the research and of public comment on it?
Mr. Curry: We have made it clear that we intend to legislate on those homelessness provisions as soon as parliamentary time permits. The hon. Gentleman might be interested in the remarks of the chairman of the Chartered Institute of Housing, Mr. Peter McGurk, at a meeting at which the press were present, where he said that he thought that the Government had got their homelessness proposals about right.
Mr. John Marshall: As the private rented market was decimated by decades of rent control and as Labour-controlled councils have more than 10,000 empty council houses in London, is not it complete hypocrisy for the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) to talk about this issue?
Mr. Davidson: The Government still have not used the powers given to them under the transfrontier shipment of waste regulations to ban shipments of toxic waste. When do they intend to use those powers?
Column 266European Union. The hon. Gentleman will realise that we are trying to ensure that dangerous waste of various types is properly dealt with. In a transitional period, it is necessary to deal with waste rather differently if facilities are not present in some European Union countries. We hope to do that in the future. I am trying to find the best way of dealing with the problems that we have now. Of course, in the longer run we will have an entirely different system.
Mr. Heald: When my right hon. Friend next meets the Environment Commissioner, will he explain to him the detail of the integrated pollution control system that we will have in this country following my right hon. Friend's announcement last week? Will he press for a European directive to drag the standards of our partners in Europe up to our extremely high standards?
Mr. Gummer: I am happy to say that a number of our colleagues in the European Union accept that what we are doing in integrated pollution control leads the field. I hope that the European Union system will be based on the British system. We are negotiating that at the moment. Some countries, notably Germany, have their reservations, but I believe that in the end what is obviously the best system will win out.
Mr. Tony Banks: Is the Secretary of State aware of the vote in the European Parliament on 30 September opposing South Africa's proposal to resume trade in elephant meat and skin? The Commissioner apparently is not taking that very seriously. Will the Secretary of State impose upon him the need to take it seriously? Will he also give us the views of the British Government on the South African proposal to downlist the elephant from appendix 1 to appendix 2 of CITES?
Mr. Gummer: The hon. Gentleman and I have been on the same side on whales and I think that the same will be true of elephants. [ Interruption .] Uncharacteristically for both of us, we are in favour of large animals. We are trying to use our best endeavours, not just negatively to oppose the propositions that have been put forward, but to find ways in which the undoubted expertise in southern Africa can be used to help other parts of Africa, where the position of elephants is much worse. A real problem exists. There are too many elephants in some parts of southern Africa and far too few in others. I want to try to reap the benefit of what is happening in the south.
Mr. Dafis: Did the Commissioner and the Secretary of State discuss the Government's proposals for an environmental protection agency, and did the Commissioner express his disappointment at the fact that the Government's draft Bill, which some of us have heard about but few of us have seen, omits any reference to the precautionary principle or to sustainable development? I express my sympathy with the right hon. Gentleman, who has had to face the opposition of the Secretary of State
Column 267for Wales, but I assure him that, in this, the Secretary of State for Wales does not speak for the people of Wales, any more than he does in relation to anything else.
Mr. Gummer: The Secretary of State for Wales has been extremely supportive on these matters. I am concerned to have an environmental agency that will fully meet the promises that we have made internationally on sustainable development. Responsibilities should be based on sustainability and growth-- the two must be held together, which is precisely what I am seeking to do. I intend that the draft Bill should be precisely that. I cannot promise to take on board all the suggestions that the hon. Gentleman may wish to make, but I will look at them carefully.
Mr. Hanson: Is the Minister aware that, more than a year after Ofwat issued guidelines on disconnections, only four companies have complied with them? Disconnections in England and Wales are now twice as high as before privatisation. Is not this another example of woefully inadequate regulation, which results in high disconnections, high prices and high salaries?
Mr. Atkins: Disconnections have decreased by 33 per cent. on last year, so the hon. Gentleman is talking nonsense. I know that the Labour party is committed to doing away with disconnections, but it should realise that it is out of touch with people. In the area represented by the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) and myself, North West Water conducted a poll of its customers and found that an overwhelming majority wanted to retain the right to disconnect, bearing in mind that the process, which goes up to a court order, is exhaustive and necessary to protect proper customers from bad payers.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: When my hon. Friend next meets his counterparts in the European Council, will he urge them to adopt European water directives that are based on proper scientific evidence? Our constituents are very concerned about the rate of increase in their water bills, which can be inflated unnecessarily by directives being based on unscientific evidence.
Mr. Atkins: I have considerable sympathy with my hon. Friend. There is a suggestion in Europe that water should be of a pristine quality, which seems to be going much too far. The cost of ensuring such water quality would lead to extremely expensive bills in some areas and my right hon. Friend and I are ensuring that our colleagues in the European Union understand that point.
Mr. Burden: The Minister spoke of the reduction in the number of disconnections. Does he share my concern about the increase in the number of what are called self-disconnections as a result of the introduction of
Column 268prepayment water meters by water companies? Does he agree that the legality of these devices is questionable and that the system needs rapidly to be reviewed?
Mr. Atkins: I have said many times from the Dispatch Box that it is my view, that of the regulator and, I think, that of many people across the party divide, although I recognise some dissension, that metering is one of the answers, if not the answer, to the payment of water bills in the future. I remind the hon. Gentleman that it is only one option-- there are others. I take the point that he made about prepayment, but the overriding concern-- expressed synthetically by the Opposition-- is about disconnections. I remind the House, however, that the disconnection facility was written into a Bill in 1945 that was promulgated by a Labour Government.
Mr. Nicholls: When my hon. Friend next meets the chairman of South West Water, will he remind him that water charges were eventually pegged in the south-west only because of the efforts of Conservative Members of Parliament and because of the actions of Ministers in the Department of the Environment? Will he further tell the chairman that he would do better to spend his time welcoming that development instead of scuttling off to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission to see whether, even now, he can impose greater price rises on the south-west than is justified?
Mr. Atkins: I spent some time in the west country during the recess and wherever I went I was astonished at the reaction of many people to the immense efforts of Conservative Members of Parliament, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls), to make the case most strongly for the amelioration of water bills, commensurate with the remedial work necessary to improve quality. As ever, my hon. Friend is quite right.
8. Mr. Mullin: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what recent discussions he has had with the National Rivers Authority about emissions from abandoned mine workings; and if he will make a statement.