Previous Section Home Page

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir Paul Beresford): My Department maintains regular contact with the National Rivers Authority about this and other matters. The NRA report published in March on this matter of concern was taken into account in our consideration of the legal framework for abandoned mines.

Mr. Mullin: Is not it a plain fact that there is absolutely nothing to stop British Coal or its successors turning off the pumps and walking away and that, if that happens, the River Wear, one of the most beautiful waterways in Britain, and many others will be devastated? Who will pay the costs of maintaining pumping after British Coal has disappeared? What assurance can the Minister give that pumping will be maintained for as long as is necessary?

Sir Paul Beresford: I am rather disappointed that the hon. Gentleman clearly has not done quite as much homework as his earlier requests, comments and correspondence implied. The NRA is the enforcing authority and the Coal Authority will be responsible for

Column 269

the safety and environmental aspects of abandoned mines, including subsidence and effects on the water environment, except where the responsibility rests with the private sector. They have a specific budget for this purpose, and the Coal Authority will maintain all necessary pumping operations to prevent such water pollution; in fact, the appropriate Minister from the Department of Trade and Industry made that clear in another place during the debate on the Coal Industry Act 1994.

Sir Anthony Durant: Does my hon. Friend agree that the NRA is doing a remarkably good job clearing up such pollution? Is not one of the problems the fact that some of the old mine workings predate even the nationalised coal industry and that we have a major problem in this respect?

Sir Paul Beresford: That certainly is correct and it is the reason for the approach that we are taking with the NRA and the Coal Authority.

Mr. George Howarth: I welcome the Minister to his new post, but I must tell him that, in assuming his new responsibilities, he should be aware that everyone, including local authorities in mining areas, the NRA and British Coal, agrees that the present situation is wholly unsatisfactory. Will he accept that it was irresponsible of the Government to pass the Coal Industry Act 1994 without resolving once and for all the grey areas that bedevil the subject and thus ensuring that we all knew how the problems were to be dealt with? Does he realise that if, during the passage of an environmental protection agency Bill, he can come up with a formula for resolving the problems, everyone in the coal areas will be grateful and he will receive the Opposition's co-operation?

Sir Paul Beresford: Interestingly, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman, although I welcome his forward-looking approach. We all accept that this is a difficult matter, but steps are being made in the right direction. I remind him that the consultation document "Paying for our Past", which is now completed, will allow us to continue our review.

Isle Of Wight

9. Mr. Barry Field: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what decisions he has made on the combined standard spending assessments for the new unitary authority on the Isle of Wight.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Robert B. Jones): We shall announce our proposals for standard spending assessments for 1995-96 shortly after the Budget.

Mr. Field: May I congratulate my hon. Friend on his promotion and thank him on behalf of the Select Committee on the Environment for all his hard work and enthusiasm when he was its Chairman? I understand that he will be replying to my Adjournment debate on SSAs on Monday evening, but, in the meantime, will he confirm to my constituents that he is well aware of my concerns about the level of the SSA for the Isle of Wight's new unitary authority and especially of the problems caused by severance by sea?

Mr. Jones: One of my vivid memories of the Select Committee on the Environment is the fact that my hon.

Column 270

Friend took every opportunity to advance the cause of his constituents, in connection not only with standard spending assessments but with everything else. In expressing my gratitude for his kind remarks, I confirm that we shall discuss those issues next Monday. I look forward to it.

Local Government Commission

10. Mr. Pawsey: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment when he expects to present proposals arising out of recommendations of the Local Government Commission for England; and when the proposals for Warwickshire will be reached.

Mr. Robert B. Jones: Timing of any orders will depend, first, on when the Local Government Commission makes its recommendations for each county; and then on other factors such as the wider parliamentary timetable. The commission is due to submit its final report for Warwickshire in December.

Mr. Pawsey: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Is he aware that a substantial number of my constituents and other Warwickshire residents wish to retain the local government status quo and oppose the idea of a unitary solution being imposed on Warwickshire? Is he further aware that there is much cross-party support for the retention of the status quo? Will he therefore join me in calling for a free vote on the matter when it is discussed in the House of Commons?

Mr. Jones: My hon. Friend's last question is not, of course, a matter for me. But on his more general point, we have not yet had the final proposal, and he will have every opportunity to try to persuade the commission. After we receive the final proposal, no doubt he and other Members representing Warwickshire will take every opportunity to alert my right hon. and hon. Friends and myself to their views.

Mr. Betts: Is the Minister aware that there is much support among the Opposition for progress towards unitary authorities, despite our reservations about the way in which the commission has operated? However, does he accept that several matters concern us, on which we shall need assurances from him? One of those matters involves potential safeguards for the employees involved. Is the Minister aware that when the metropolitan counties were abolished a generally acceptable scheme was introduced to allow for the transfer of employees and to protect them? Will he give an assurance that he will examine that scheme and consider introducing it for the non-metropolitan areas?

Mr. Jones: Naturally, the future of the employees concerned is a matter of anxiety for them. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we have consulted on the various measures necessary to protect their interests. No decisions have been made as yet, and I will certainly bear the hon. Gentleman's comments in mind.

Mr. Alison: Does my hon. Friend recognise that, although the Boundaries Commission expressed no very strong views on how the future boundaries of York city might be drawn, people who live in the villages round York and within the existing city boundaries have extremely strong views? The overwhelming majority believe that any future York city boundaries should be

Column 271

tightly drawn and should not extend into the Greater York planning area. If that is news to my hon. Friend, I hope that he will digest it with an open mind, and nudge the Secretary of State so that he may digest it likewise.

Mr. Jones: Clearly, Warwickshire's boundaries extend rather further than I had thought, but I will certainly bear my right hon. Friend's comments in mind. As he knows, we have not yet come to a final decision on the county of North Yorkshire.

Mr. Henderson: May I add to the Opposition's welcome to the Minister in his new appointment? Further to the answer that he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts), does he accept that the matter is not simply a case of dealing with the staff issue as such, but that the staff's anxiety is beginning, wrongly, to influence the whole review? Instead of its being judged on whether we have the right structure, organisational effectiveness or community democracy, in many areas the review is judged according to its impact on the staff. Would not it be right to withdraw that issue and give the assurances that my hon. Friend sought, and then to get on and deal with the review on its merits?

Mr. Jones: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind welcome. As he knows, I was present at a meeting where he and the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) raised precisely those issues, and Ministers are still considering them. As the hon. Gentleman knows, an early announcement would be helpful in reassuring the staff, and we are moving towards that.


11. Mr. Simon Coombs: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what is his estimate of the current level of consumption of unleaded petrol in the United Kingdom; and if he will make a statement on the environmental effects of the reduced use of leaded petrol.

Mr. Gummer: Unleaded petrol currently accounts for over 58 per cent. of the market. Since the fuel was first introduced, emissions of lead from road vehicles have been cut by almost 50 per cent. and, at the same time, average airborne lead concentrations recorded in urban, rural and kerbside monitoring sites have fallen by approximately 74 per cent.

Mr. Coombs: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the great success of the Government's policy over the past nine years can be measured by the dramatic fall in airborne lead concentrations, which, as he just said, amounts to some 74 per cent? Does he also agree that, as a result of the transfer from leaded petrol to lead-free petrol, there has been an increase in other emissions, especially those such as benzene, which contain carcinogens? On that basis, does he agree that there is still a need to encourage conversion to catalytic converters in more than the existing 15 per cent. of the vehicle fleet in the country to reduce the threat of benzene, which has simply replaced the existing threat of leaded petrol?

Mr. Gummer: My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the success of the policy and the way in which there is much less lead in the atmosphere. Perhaps he is

Column 272

overstating the matter to say that the problems with benzene are as great or parallel. In fact, there is not much evidence to show that unleaded petrol contributes much to an increase in the amount of benzene. However, he is also right to point to the need for catalytic converters and for the use of, particularly, hot catalytic converters, which work from the first starting of the motor.

Mr. Robert Ainsworth: The Minister will be aware that there is growing concern about benzene and that it is used largely in the sale of super unleaded, 98 octane petrol, where the replacement of the lead content, the octane rating, has been boosted by the addition of benzene. Surely that area, and the whole policy, need to be considered because of the grave health concerns.

Mr. Gummer: The hon. Gentleman is right that we should always look at the concerns. I do not think that we should overdo it. The level permitted by the European Community directive is a maximum of 5 per cent. The typical UK content is lower; about 2 per cent. So, already, we are well below the limits which are placed on us. I quite agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should keep a very close watch on this and we are doing so. If there is any cause for concern, and I believe that there are ways in which we could meet that concern, I will certainly act.

Mr. Sweeney: Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the amount of not only lead emissions but other pollutants is falling and will he update the House on the controversy over whether unleaded petrol or diesel-powered cars are better for the environment?

Mr. Gummer: There is a great deal of improvement in many areas, but we must constantly look at ways in which we can do better. I am not in any sense complacent. The problem with diesel really depends on the nature of the journey. When diesel cars are used largely for longer journeys, there is a real environmental advantage. If they are used for stopping and starting in towns, the balance goes the other way. As is so often true about environmental decisions, they are not as clear cut as some would have us think. Our duty is to try to get the best answer and the best balance that is possible. I believe that the Government have a good record, not only in absolute terms, but in comparison with our continental colleagues.

Local Government Review

14. Mr. Hall: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment when he next expects to meet the local authority associations to discuss the progress of the local government review.

Mr. Robert B. Jones: My right hon. Friend met the chairmen of the local authority associations only yesterday. He expects to meet them again on Monday 12 December.

Mr. Hall: Notwithstanding the discussion that has already taken place in the local government review, may I urge the Minister, when he next meets the local

Column 273

government commission, to tell it that the Government are still committed to the concept of unitary local government and to explain the reasons why that concept is still right: it strengthens local democracy, it removes a two-tier system that is quite confusing and it allows councils to be responsive to the needs of the communitiesthat they represent. It is right for towns such as Warrington, Macclesfield and Halton to gain unitary status in the review.

Mr. Jones: The hon. Gentleman puts a very persuasive case for unitary authorities, which are right for some if not many areas. But we are not committed to a particular pattern of local government and there will be areas in which public opinion and the recommendations of the commission are incompatible.

Mr. Matthew Banks: When my hon. Friend next meets local authority association leaders, will he restate the commitment given to me by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that when the commission has finished its work on the shire counties, it will have an opportunity to consider the metropolitan areas, such as my constituency, where a strong desire for change has been expressed?

Mr. Jones: I am happy to repeat that reassurance.

Mr. Skinner: Is not it about time that this local government review was scrapped? It has already cost the taxpayer more than £1 billion and it will mean the sacking of more than 100,000 people who are engaged in local government work. For the life of me, I cannot understand why some of the people on our side can go down the road of unitary authorities, which will result in more people being added to the dole queues and more quangos as opposed to democratically elected councils. Is not it fair to say that, although 300 towns and cities in this country are represented here, more Members of Parliament come from areas that have a rural character, where villages are miles apart and where a two-tier system is absolutely necessary? The best thing the Government can do is leave well alone and let the status quo remain.

Mr. Jones: It is part of life's rich pattern that there should be different views on local government and its future. I note that that pattern is more complicated on the Opposition Benches than Conservative Members perhaps imagined.

Home Ownership

15. Dr. Goodson-Wickes: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement about the level of home ownership in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Robert B. Jones: In the period March 1979 to December 1993, the level of owner-occupation has increased from 56 per cent. of all tenures to 67 per cent. in England, from 35 to 55 per cent. in Scotland, from 59 to 72 per cent. in Wales and from 51 to 68 per cent. in Northern Ireland.

Dr. Goodson-Wickes: Does my hon. Friend accept that those figures reflect a deep commitment on the part of the British people to home ownership which the Government have done so much to promote over the years? Did my hon. Friend see a recent survey that showed that, despite the recession, it was the aspiration of most young people

Column 274

to own their own homes? Will he therefore endorse and expand those initiatives that the Government have put in place to make that aspiration possible?

Mr. Jones: I can certainly confirm that the survey to which my hon. Friend referred is one of a series of surveys that show that that is the preferred aspiration. However, it is not the right answer for everyone. We have taken several initiatives to encourage home ownership. If my hon. Friend has any other suggestions as to how home ownership might be made more possible, I shall be happy to consider them sympathetically.

Mr. Straw: On one of these so-called initiatives to encourage home ownership--the much-trumpeted rents-to-mortgages scheme--will the Minister confirm that in the first six months of the scheme, from September 1993 to March 1994, there were just two completed applications and that that pathetic response was achieved despite the spending of more than £400,000 of the public's money on publicity and propaganda? That is £200,000 per application. Will the Minister therefore confirm that, even by this Government's appalling standards, that scheme has turned into one of the most expensive fiascos on record? Had local councillors been responsible for waste and profligacy on that scale, they would by now have been surcharged and disqualified from office. Should not the same happen to the Ministers responsible?

Mr. Jones: The hon. Gentleman fails to understand that the purpose of an information campaign is to inform and that it is very early, in terms of the development of the scheme, to judge the numbers. It takes a long time to go through the legal processes. If we are to judge by the experience in Scotland, the numbers will grow in the weeks and months to come. The hon. Gentleman seems to be implying that any scheme to extend home ownership is something that he is unhappy about. That is rather typical of the Labour party's attitude generally.

Mr. Duncan Smith: While congratulating my right hon. Friend and his hon. Friends on the great success in getting more people into home ownership, and while urging them to continue to do that, is not there a parallel need to do more to release the private rented sector? If we wish to see a mobile population which is able to take jobs at one end of the country or the other, we must also ensure that people are able to find homes in those areas.

Mr. Jones: My hon. Friend is quite right. We are committed to choice and diversity, and that includes the private rented sector--directly, through encouraging lettings in that sector, and indirectly, through encouraging the participation of housing associations, to ensure that the number of private lettings increases.

Waste Disposal

16. Mr. Roy Hughes: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what recent discussions he has had with his EU counterparts concerning the control of waste disposal.

Mr. Gummer: I have regular contact with my EU counterparts. The most recent discussions I have had with

Column 275

them on issues relating to waste disposal were at the Council of Ministers in Luxembourg on 4 October.

Mr. Roy Hughes: Referring to the answer given to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Davidson), does the Minister appreciate that there is a good deal of concern in south Wales about waste disposal, and that the situation has been further aggravated by an application from the American company Browning Ferris to install a plant at Newport? The firm has a rather

Column 276

infamous record, so will the Minister consult the Secretary of State for Wales with a view to getting the application rejected? Does he agree that it is wrong to make south Wales the dustbin of Europe? Mr. Gummer: I am sure that my right hon. Friend will look at any application properly and without prejudice. In these environmental matters, however, there is a need to clean up the waste that has already been created. We must play a proper part in that if we are to avoid leaving a dustbin that is not cleaned up. The hon. Gentleman owes it to his constituents to explain that fact to them.

Next Section (Debates)

  Home Page