Order for consideration read.
To be considered tomorrow.
Considered; to be read the Third time.
1. Dr. Goodson-Wickes: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what assessment he has made of the value and usefulness of the River Thames and its tributaries in London; and if he will bring forward proposals to make better use of it.
Dr. Goodson-Wickes: As my right hon. Friend knows, the River Wandle, one of the main tributaries of the River Thames, runs through my constituency. Does he agree that the River Thames is much too often taken for granted and that it is under-used and
under-recognised? Will he assure me that he will do his utmost to ensure that its aesthetic, historical and transport facilities are promoted to the full, perhaps in the context of the millennium fund?
Mr. Gummer: It is vital that we use all the Thames's assets and ensure that it remains a working river. We want it to carry even more waste out of London, which would otherwise be moved by lorry, and to ensure that it is used to the full. I am sure that my hon. Friend's point about the millennium fund can easily be passed on to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage.
Mr. Cohen: Why does not the Secretary of State improve his aesthetic appreciation and visit the Whistler exhibition at the Tate gallery, where he would see pictures showing that the River Thames was far more heavily used at the end of the last century than it is now? All the Government seem to be doing is pushing more lorries on to London's roads. Should not we be using the Thames more?
Column 1186occasions because of the smell. I am happy to tell the hon. Gentleman that it is cleaner now than it has been for 400 years and we can now take salmon and other fish from it. Finally, the hon. Gentleman should not believe that he is the only person who has been to an exhibition.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir Paul Beresford): Responsibility for assessing the environmental impact of the proposed power lines in the vale of York belongs to the Department of Trade and Industry, which is the consenting authority for such projects. I understand that, as required, environmental statements were submitted with the planning applications and that, following consideration of environmental matters by the public inquiry, my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade was satisfied with the environmental information before him.
Mr. Greenway: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply, but I urge him to take a much closer interest in the proposed national grid power line through the vale of York, which people in North Yorkshire regard as a potentially serious blot on the landscape. It is not good enough for the Department of the Environment to fail in this instance to apply the planning criteria that would apply to other such applications merely because the issue is decided by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. Does he agree that the public outrage is wholly justified, as the planning inspector considered that it was wrong for the ENRHON power plant to be given the go-ahead without an environmental impact assessment being conducted into the power lines through the vale of York?
I note what my hon. Friend says, but we must accept that there has been full consideration of all relevant environmental matters. The matter was put to a public inquiry, and my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade, who has to decide, was satisfied with the environmental information presented to him.
3. Mr. Wigley: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what steps he proposes to take in order to increase the safeguards to the environment from the leaching of radioactive substances from landfill dumps into which radioactive waste is deposited.
Column 1187disposals of radioactive waste to landfill sites are properly regulated and that the public and the environment are fully protected.
Mr. Wigley: Is the Minister aware of the considerable dismay and concern that has arisen, following publication of the Government's consultation document on radioactive waste, about the possibility that waste currently going to Drigg could be redirected to landfill sites? Is he aware that from one such site in my constituency, Cilgwyn, water could leach through into the waterways in the neighbouring valleys and on to agricultural land, which would be wholly unacceptable from every viewpoint? Will he ensure that when considering the outcome of the consultation document, that dimension is taken fully into account?
Mr. Atkins: I understand why the hon. Gentleman raises the matter. No specific sites have been mentioned and no decisions have been made. It is a consultation paper. He will be aware, as will other hon. Members who take an interest in these matters, that the consultation is being undertaken because of pressure at Drigg in Cumbria on the low-level waste disposal. At many sites in the country such disposal of low-level nuclear waste has been made over the years, under all sorts of Governments. It would not be my intention to make the situation any more difficult. I emphasise again that we have not talked about any specific sites; at this stage, it is only consultation.
Mr. Allason: Does my hon. Friend recognise that there will be widespread acceptance and a widespread welcome for the consultation document, especially because of the kind of speculation that we have experienced in the past? Is he aware of, and would he like to comment on, the disgraceful and damaging speculation that has been indulged in, especially by the Liberal Democrats in the south-west in relation to Torbay? Of all the sites for landfill for radioactive waste, that must arguably be the most unlikely in the country, yet that has not prevented local Liberal Democrats from making absurd political capital or from trying to frighten the local population and visitors to Torbay.
Mr. Atkins: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I speak with authority because Liberal Democrats in my constituency suggested that a site on the boundary of the constituency would be reopened for nuclear waste. That was an absolute fabrication and complete nonsense, and they frightened many people unnecessarily. My hon. Friend is entirely right to suggest that certain people not a million miles away from the Liberal Democrat Benches here should think carefully before making statements that are untrue and misleading.
Mr. Campbell-Savours: I recognise the constraints placed on Ministers in the case of the Nirex deep repository application in the county of Cumbria, but will the Minister take an interest in Nirex's practice of bribing local organisations to win approval, thereby trying to avoid real resistance from the people of the county of Cumbria to its proposals?
Column 1188he says. However, I have no evidence of anything happening along the lines that he suggests. If he has evidence to present to me, I should like to see it.
Mr. Banks: While the Secretary of State was clocking up his air miles, did he notice that each of the capital cities had city-wide local government and its own equivalent of County hall? In London, we have neither. Does he share my considerable concern about the bizarre happenings surrounding County hall at the moment? As it seems that the deal between the London residuary body and the Shirayama hotel group was based on a fraud perpetrated by Shirayama, and as we may now be moving into an area of criminal conspiracy, will he, to protect London, County hall and perhaps even himself and his reputation, now order a full inquiry into the events surrounding the takeover and sale of County hall and into the events now taking place?
Mr. Gummer: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his care for my reputation. I assure him that I have been to a number of capital cities, such as Paris, that do not have city-wide local government, so I do not think that that point is taken.
The point that the hon. Gentleman raises about County hall is important and I share his concern. It is an important listed building in a very important position on the River Thames. If there is any significant change of use in the building, a new planning application will be needed. I shall consider carefully whether I should call that in to determine myself. Obviously, I cannot prejudge any application, as no application has been made.
Mr. John Marshall: On his visits around the world, did my right hon. Friend discuss the impact of the private finance initiative, which we were told yesterday should very soon lead to an announcement of 100 new, modern trains for the Northern line in this great capital?
Mr. Gummer: My visits were mainly concerned with selling British products. Interestingly, private finance initiatives, copied from this country, are now beginning to drive industry and government in a number of countries. In addition, the newly privatised industries are winning billions of pounds in orders for Britain--industries which, had they remained nationalised, would not have been able to win a single cent.
Column 1189increased by £500 million in real terms. That takes into account social security spending on housing benefits and income support.
Mr. Corbett: Is 90 per cent. of the Minister's constituency casework, like mine, related to housing, particularly in the wake of the halving of Government investment in social housing, which his figures should have confirmed? What hope does that give to 17,000 people on the waiting list in the city of Birmingham, which has an excellent record of private sector partnerships, and to the tenants of 4,500 council homes that still have outside toilets? Will he confirm that the further cuts in investment in housing announced yesterday will mean 20,000 fewer new homes next year and 15,000 fewer building jobs?
Mr. Curry: The Government have created 180,000 new lettings in the past three years, and our policies will achieve the same in the next three years. As the hon. Gentleman is talking about Birmingham, he will no doubt wish to applaud Castle Vale housing action trust, a partnership with private sector developers and tenants that will receive £7 million worth of grant aid this year and £26 million of estate action schemes. He should not forget that housing is a question not only of new build but of new lettings. The regeneration of housing and the turning of some of the awful post-war estates into places where people want to live and have pride in living is a central part, and one of the most successful parts, of our policy.
Mr. Hendry: Will my hon. Friend confirm that there are 2 million more houses in this country than there were 15 years ago and that the Government are well ahead of their manifesto commitment on social housing and building programmes? Does he agree that a good deal more would be spent on housing if Labour authorities were rather better at collecting rents on their council estates?
Mr. Curry: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course, one has to take into consideration not only the resources that Government make available for those programmes, but how much money is levered in. Since 1988, we have levered £2.6 billion of private sector funding into the programme. That makes a very substantial programme and that is exactly the right way in which to do it. I am confident that we shall continue to lever in proportional amounts.
Mr. Raynsford: Will the Minister tell the House the truth about the cuts in housing investment over the lifetime of this Government? There has been a cut of more than 50 per cent. in real terms. Will he admit that that has been compounded by yesterday's disastrous Budget? Will he confirm that housing association starts will be reduced to fewer than 20,000 next year-- the lowest level of rented housing since the second world war?
Will he confirm that council modernisation schemes will be scrapped because of cuts in local authority credit approvals? Does he accept that the improvement of privately owned properties will be stopped because of cuts in that area? Does he also accept that, contrary to
Column 1190the Secretary of State's weaselly words yesterday, council tenants will be clobbered by rent increases three times as high as the rate of inflation?
Mr. Curry: First, the answer to most of that is no. Secondly, perhaps the hon. Gentleman--[ Interruption. ] If the hon. Gentleman had listened carefully yesterday, he would have noticed that the pattern of rent increases in future will be 4 per cent., 3 per cent. and 2 per cent. in real terms over inflation. Of course, that means that the Government are doing what they said. Where there is a public expenditure gain to be made from increasing rents, we have pursued it. When that ceases to be of benefit, it makes sense to review the policy.
The hon. Gentleman should listen more carefully to what is happening and realise that housing policy, the creation of partnerships, the estate action programmes, action under the single regeneration budget, the schemes to improve lettings and new build, taken together, form a comprehensive housing policy that has been remarkably successful.
Dr. Spink: I welcome unreservedly that answer from my right hon. Friend. Does he recall that it is now almost a year since he issued his minded-to-approve decision for a large out-of-town supermarket for Canvey island? The section 106 agreement has been delayed unacceptably by Aldersgate Development. Will he do what he can to bring that agreement forward so that my council and my constituents know what is happening about that development?
Mr. Gummer: It is very important that people should know where they stand, and I will do all I can to ensure that there is a solution to that problem. However, I am sure that my hon. Friend noticed that the Labour party clearly does not think that it is a good idea to improve in-town developments and make our town centres live again. We know who is on the reactionary side in the House.
Mr. Lewis: Does not the Secretary of State realise what a ridiculous figure he cuts at the moment-- [Interruption.] --the Whale show--as he spends taxpayers' money trying to push through the Dumplington scheme in Greater Manchester, while at the same time he pretends to be in favour of in-town shopping?
Mr. Gummer: The hon. Gentleman must know that the issue at stake is whether decisions by previous Secretaries of State should stand or whether they can be continually second-guessed thereafter. Any Secretary of State in my position would stand up for the maintenance of certainty in these decisions. That is precisely why I answered my hon. Friend the Member
Column 1191for Castle Point (Dr. Spink) in the way that I did. What is more, if there ever were a Labour Secretary of State for the Environment, he would do precisely the same.
Dr. Twinn: Does my right hon. Friend agree that out-of-town shopping centres are popular with the driving public because people can park their cars easily and for free? If we are going to make town centres competitive in respect of out-of-town shopping--and we should be doing that--does he agree that it is up to local authorities and shop owners in city centres to make city centres competitive, which means free parking?
Mr. Gummer: My hon. Friend is quite right to say that parking arrangements are crucial to delivering the in-town shopping centres that we want. Local authorities must make that possible and recognise that car parking is not a matter largely for them but that it can be much better run by those with an economic interest in the success of city centres, who run better car parks and ensure that there is closed circuit television to cover them.
Mr. Madden: As the Government shot themselves in both feet over the funding of English teaching to ethnic minority children, will the Minister ensure that the 50 single regeneration budget bids directly related to education, including that from Bradford, are given every sympathetic consideration? Will he do his best to ensure that the Cabinet sub-committee supervising the SRB quickly reaches new arrangements for the proper and secure funding of English teaching to ethnic minority children in schools?
Mr. Curry: The hon. Gentleman may not have noticed that we have doubled section 11 funding for teaching in schools where there are particular problems. Schools can bid for that funding, and no doubt Bradford will be one of the areas to do so. All bids under the SRB will be considered according to the criteria laid out. The partnerships must be very solid and deliverable and the schemes must be well-founded. They will all be judged on that basis. It is not the intention that any bid should have a head start over any other bid. The bids should be on an exactly level playing field.
Mr. Patrick Thompson: Bearing in mind Nestle 's recent announcement of the closure, in two years, of the Rowntree Mackintosh factory in Norwich and its employment implications in my constituency, will my hon. Friend give appropriate consideration to the single regeneration budget bids that he receives from Norwich and the surrounding area?
Mr. Curry: I say to my hon. Friend, as I said to the hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden), that we judge bids objectively. My hon. Friend will know that coverage was nationwide--we did not focus on certain areas-- and that enabled us to address problems that arose from economic circumstances. We
Column 1192did not want any part of the country to feel that it was not entitled to take part in the process or that its concerns were not being met.
Mr. Vaz: How does the Minister intend to compensate local councils and other organisations that have spent hundreds of thousands of pounds and thousands of hours preparing for bids that, as the Minister knows, will not be successful because of the absurd funding regime of the SRB? When will the Government implement a regeneration policy that addresses the needs of urban Britain rather than the whims of Ministers and the Department of the Environment press office?
Mr. Curry: The hon. Gentleman should spend more time, as I do, going around the country and talking to council leaders. He will find what great support Labour leaders are giving the process. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) is a very good case in point. Since he ceased to be its leader, matters have improved considerably in Sheffield.
Authorities have often learnt much from the process of putting bids together. I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman forgot to welcome the additional funding under the second round. Bids that were not successful the first time will have an opportunity to correct what might not have been right. As for compensation, I regard the money as very well spent and the experience very well learnt.
Mrs. Angela Knight: My hon. Friend will be aware of the concern that bids from areas that already have assisted or European regional status will receive preference in the SRB round. Can he assure me that that will not be so and that bids from areas such as Erewash, which will be put together by the business community and the local authority, will be judged on their merits only and will not be disadvantaged in the way that I have described?
Mr. Curry: I am sure that I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that she seeks. We judge bids on their intrinsic merits, the strength of the partnership, their deliverability and whether the schemes are working and are practicable. When the results are announced, my hon. Friend will see that we have been absolutely consistent in our treatment of the bids.
Mr. Betts: Does the Minister not understand that cities such as Sheffield are putting in bids for the single regeneration budget simply because there are no other sources of funds to deal with the major problems of city centres? The Government have not allocated new money for the budget. All that they have done is shut down the urban programme, cut the money available and put it into the single regeneration budget, and add to it money from housing investment programmes that have been top-sliced in the first place by central Government. There is no new money. There are real problems, and the Government are doing nothing to address them properly.
Mr. Curry: The problems are being addressed properly, and they are being addressed properly in Sheffield, because the city of Sheffield has shown considerable and welcome enterprise in this matter. I have considerable dealings with the leadership in Sheffield. The development corporation and estate
Column 1193action and housing programmes are working well. We will see whether it will be successful with its single regeneration budget bid. The scheme has certainly been well supported by Sheffield.
Mr. Hawkins: Does my hon. Friend accept that my constituents, who were glad to welcome him on his recent visit, greatly look forward to the all-party delegation that my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Elletson) and I will bring to see him on 12 December in respect of our single regeneration budget bid? I hope that he will sympathetically consider our proposals, which are based on a real partnership of business and the local authority. I join my hon. Friend in welcoming what our right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor said yesterday about extending single regeneration budget funding.
Mr. Curry: I look forward to meeting the delegation with my two hon. Friends from Blackpool. I know how hard they try to promote the interests of a borough that has its problems--we all realise that. No doubt, my hon. Friend will welcome the fact that resources have been increased and that there will be a second round on the same basis as the first round. Where bids have not succeeded the first time, there will be a chance to put them forward in the second round. Other bids will be invited as well.
I repeat what I have said to every questioner in the House: we are judging the bids on their merits according to very clear and open criteria. Everyone understands that, and the process has spawned a great deal of effective co-operation between the private sector, local authorities, education institutions and training and enterprise councils. It has been an extremely useful exercise and people are learning that local government and the private sector can work together creatively and sensibly, supported by central Government.
Mr. Atkins: As the hon. Member knows, the water industry associations have recently presented to Ministers their views about future methods of charging for water and sewerage services which are being considered.
Mrs. Jackson: Does the Minister recognise that in an industry where there is not usually political consensus, there is consensus--apart from the Government Front Bench and the Director General of Ofwat--that, because water and sewerage are public services, it is both fair and sensible to allow water companies to continue to use the local taxation base as a reasonable core charging method? Will he respond positively to the document which was presented to him by the water industry associations and say that they can use council tax data for their charging systems? Will he do that as soon as possible?
Mr. Atkins: The hon. Lady and other Opposition Members must realise that, if they believe as much as we do in sustainable development of a natural resource, it is logical that a cost must be levied on the basis of consumption. That is the case with gas and electricity, and I do not see how water is any different.
Column 1194It is crucial that we make the right decision. The water industry associations and others, including the hon. Lady, have presented their views to us. I give the hon. Lady an undertaking that my right hon. Friend and I will make a decision as quickly as we can.
Mr. Ian Bruce: Will my hon. Friend think very carefully before moving to increase metering? I hate to agree with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mrs. Jackson), but there appears to be a great deal of evidence that water companies bear costs in the area of distribution of water as opposed to production of water. Therefore, the additional costs that may be added because of the introduction of metering might be out of all proportion to the benefit to consumers. If people were to reduce the amount of water they use, the price of water per gallon might rise dramatically. I hate to think what the political implications would be if we went ahead with metering.
Mr. Atkins: My hon. Friend recognises, as we all do, that there is no party political division in this area; there is no dogma on this matter. Opposition Members keep telling us about the need for sustainable development and an environmental approach, but they seem to fly in the face of the logic of that stance, which is that cost should be based on consumption. If that is the case, metering is the logical answer.
I recognise that there are other views, and we will make a decision on the basis of people's thoughts and concerns in due course.
Mr. Matthew Taylor: Does the Minister accept that, if he decides to go ahead with compulsory water metering across the country, that cannot be brought into effect to meet the present time scale for ending charging on the old rating system? Therefore, would it not make sense to allow that system to be updated by using council tax to ensure a modern system with up -to-date values? That would open the possibility of providing help to people on low incomes and those who live alone, particularly those with high water charges, on the same basis as the council tax.
Mr. Atkins: The hon. Gentleman and his party spend a lot of time preaching at us about the environment and about sustainable development. As I said to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mrs. Jackson) earlier, if we believe in the policy there has to be a consumption-related tax. Frankly, when it comes to water matters, I take less notice of what Liberal Members say than anyone else in the House.
Mr. Dobson: Why do the Government insist that it would be right for everyone in the country to be forced to have a water meter and to find the cost of installing that meter? The public have made it clear that they do not want meters. The water companies have now described it as an untenable option. Why do not the Government abandon the idea and allow the companies to charge instead on the basis of council tax bands or rateable values? Only the Government and the water regulator persist in believing that compulsory metering is right. We have to start asking whose side the water regulator is on: the Government or the public?
Column 1195policy, as often declared, to support sustainable development of scarce and declining resources is to ensure that consumption is the factor, just as it is with gas and electricity. There is no compulsion as the matter stands. There are alternatives, and people have the opportunity to take them up. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman reads the subject up and then talks to me. I will tell him what it is all about.
Mr. Harry Greenway: Bearing in mind the intense hardship to people whose water is cut off for non-payment or other reasons, will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the fact that fewer people are cut off nowadays? Will he undertake to initiate research which will ensure that every possible step is taken before people are cut off, including finding other ways of paying their bills, perhaps through social security or in one way or another?
Mr. Atkins: My hon. Friend is right to say that disconnections are declining. The recent figures announced for this year showed a continuing decline. The process that has to be followed by a water company before it can obtain disconnection--a court order, several letters and various other requirements--means that disconnection does not take place unless it is the absolute ultimate sanction. All the evidence, certainly from research by the water companies among customers in my area in the north-west, suggests that the majority of customers, by which I mean a substantial percentage, wish to retain the option of disconnection as an ultimate sanction for non- payment.
Mrs. Ewing: I welcome the legislation which is to be presented, but I wish to express disappointment, particularly on Saint Andrew's day, that there is to be no separate legislation to establish a Scottish environmental protection agency. Will the right hon. Gentleman clarify how that decision was reached, given the different legislative systems? Despite that, will he give an assurance that he will consult Scottish-based organisations with reference to abandoned and contaminated land sites, which often contribute more to river pollution than the normal industrial activities of the modern day? Will he give us an assurance that a duty will be placed on the agencies to have a catchment management policy which will ensure that all aspects are examined closely together?
Mr. Gummer: The hon. Lady is right to say that these things must be looked at together. That is why we are bringing the three agencies together and why there is a clear section in the legislation dealing with the Scottish environment agency, which will be a separate agency. It is perfectly proper that it should come in the same legislation because we all share in the environment and we all seek to ensure that environmental protection in Scotland and that in the rest of the United Kingdom
Column 1196should complement each other. There is no reason why we cannot deal with the matter in the same Bill. All that I can say is that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has taken an extremely detailed personal interest in the matter as it relates not only to Scotland but to the rest of the United Kingdom.
Mr. Barry Field: When my right hon. Friend considers protection agencies in general, will he consider one for chief executives of Liberal- controlled authorities, who appear to be becoming an endangered species? Has he read the report in the Local Government Chronicle and from the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives that the Liberal Democrats seem to have a policy of sacking chief executives or not replacing them?
Madam Speaker: Order. The question hardly relates to that on the Order Paper. I called the hon. Gentleman because I realised that he was Chairman of the Select Committee on the Environment and thought that he might have an interesting contribution to make. If the Minister can make some sort of reply, I would appreciate it if he could keep it to the subject on the Order Paper.
Ms Ruddock: On the cost benefit provisions of the proposed agency, does the Secretary of State care to reflect on the case of the Drax power station, where the need to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions on environmental grounds led to massive investment in flue gas desulphurisation? Is he aware that, due to the Government's bizarre criteria, the electricity companies are purchasing cheaper electricity from dirty power stations in preference to that produced cleanly at Drax?
Despite the Secretary of State's good intentions and the new environment agency, which we wish to support, is it not the case that the Government's commitment to market forces, deregulation and privatisation will undermine that agency before it is even born?
Mr. Gummer: No, precisely the opposite is true. That commitment makes it possible for us to protect the environment. The area of the world in which the environment has been least protected is eastern Europe, which ran a socialist society. We all know perfectly well how one destroys the environment--one has central planning, central control and no market forces and one does not introduce mechanisms whereby market forces support the environment.
That is why, for example, we announced the landfill levy yesterday and why Friends of the Earth called my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer the Chancellor with the greenest credentials that our nation has ever seen. No Labour Chancellor was ever considered environmentally friendly and the reason is very clear from the ridiculous position that the Opposition have taken on the environment.