The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. John Gummer): The commission published its final report on Derbyshire last Wednesday. There is a six-week period for representations to the Department of the Environment.
Mrs. Knight: Is my right hon. Friend aware of the widely held view of Derbyshire people that their arguments in favour of unitary authorities were ignored by the commission from the start? While Derby city rightly gets its independence under the proposals, does he agree that the benefits of unitary authorities should be spread more widely across Derbyshire, rather than leaving so many people to struggle on under the currently imperfect two-tier system?
Mr. Gummer: My hon. Friend will know that during this period I have to listen very carefully to views from all sides, and I have noted very clearly what she and many of her colleagues think. At the end of the six- week period I shall have to make up my mind as to what to present to Parliament.
Mr. Skinner: Is the Minister aware that in the course of the Local Government Commission's discussions--which extended over many months, during which the Minister sent the commission back to test the water again- -every single piece of evidence from all the polling surveys made it clear that the Derbyshire people wanted to retain the status quo? It has been an extremely costly exercise for the taxpayers of Derbyshire and for Britain as a whole. It is time that the Minister got off his political high horse and stopped trying to disassemble Derbyshire just because he does not like its political complexion. Why does the Minister not accept the survey results?
Mr. Gummer: There is clearly a difference of view in Derbyshire which has already been represented in the House today. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that, once the discussion period has ended, we should lay the order with due speed. I hope that he will ask his hon. Friends not to hold up all the orders until the end of the process because that would cause considerable difficulty for the people who work in Derbyshire and the districts. I hope that the Labour party will support a speedy process.
The Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration (Mr. David Curry): We are still considering the commission's recommendations for Hampshire in the light of meetings with nine of the councils concerned and the views contained in some 2,000 letters.
Mr. Viggers: While not many people threw their hats in the air at the commission's interim conclusions--which recommend that county borough status should be restored to Southampton and Portsmouth--very few people outside the New Forest can understand the late idea that the New Forest should have unitary status. I accept that my hon. Friend is not in a position to give me an answer this afternoon, but will he bear in mind the strong representations outside the New Forest that giving the New Forest unitary status will considerably damage the concept of Hampshire as a county?
Mr. Curry: My hon. Friend will understand that in reaching our conclusions on this and all other counties we have to judge the intrinsic merits of the case for unitary status in particular areas, together with the consequential effects on the remaining county area if a hybrid solution is envisaged.
Mr. Denham: The Minister will be aware of the strong support in Southampton for a unitary council for that area. Will he bring forward a clear timetable for local government reorganisation in Hampshire? Matters are drifting on month by month and people are unclear about whether they will face elections for new authorities this May or next year. It is also deeply unsettling for the staff who are delivering services. Will the Minister give a commitment to announcing a clear timetable for decision making and for implementing the results?
Mr. Curry: The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that we must consider carefully all the representations that we have received, and there is a heavy volume of representations from Hampshire. As soon as we have done so, we shall announce our intentions. When we have done that, I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman, for the reasons that he has just stated, will want us to invite Parliament to take a decision so that the staff, about whose future he is rightly concerned, will know exactly where they stand and will not be kicking their heels for several months or perhaps a year while the process is completed.
Mr. Colvin: Contrary to what my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) had to say, does my hon. Friend appreciate that there is another view in Hampshire? Two thirds of my constituency is within the New Forest, so I can confirm that there is strong support for the recommendation that there should be unitary status for that district. With regard to resources, the New Forest is the fifth biggest district council in the country, out of 333 district councils, in terms of its tax base, and even if it were given unitary status Hampshire county council would still remain the fourth biggest. Will my hon. Friend confirm that, contrary to rumour, our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State still has an open mind on the
Column 693recommendations for Hampshire? Will the Minister also talk to the Secretary of State for Education about the recommendations-- [Interruption.] --as she has undertaken to look carefully at the ability of the New Forest to provide an education service- - [Interruption.] --as good as, or better than, that which Hampshire county council now provides?
Madam Speaker: Order. It is an abuse of Question Time when hon. Members go on for so long. I wish that they would spend part of their lunch time working out the questions that they want to ask the Minister. That would make very good use of the lunch period.
Mr. Curry: As soon as we have considered the representations, we shall announce our decision. The case for the New Forest, as well as the implications for the rest of the county, must of course be borne in mind. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education will be able to consider the recommendations as all these matters are for the collective decision of the Government.
Mr. Tony Lloyd: Is the Minister aware that he could dispel the cynicism which surrounds the review process for Hampshire and the rest of the country if he would make it clear now that he will bring before the House the final recommendations of the commission in every case in which change is proposed? If he will provide that guarantee and also make it clear that staff will have the same terms and conditions, whether on redundancy or transfer, that they were given with the abolition of the metropolitan counties, the doubts which now divide his hon. Friends will be set at naught, particularly if we know that the House of Commons and the House of Lords will have a proper say in the process.
Mr. Curry: The first part of the hon. Gentleman's question seems entirely without point. Of course we shall bring the matter before the House: we are obliged to do so. I look forward to the debate. I enjoyed the debate on Cleveland enormously and I hope to enjoy the same spectacle reproduced on the Opposition side in debate after debate on these matters. The one thing that would militate actively against the interests of the staff would be not knowing where they stand and following the Labour party policy of deciding nothing until all the recommendations were before the House. If that were the case, no one would know where they were and the recipe for uncertainty would be enormous.
3. Mr. Elletson: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement about assistance provided by the Government to eastern European countries to deal with environmental pollution.
The Minister for the Environment and Countryside (Mr. Robert Atkins): Like many other people, the Government have been appalled to learn of the extent of pollution and environmental destruction that has been exposed since the collapse of communism and socialism in the former eastern bloc. We are providing substantial support to the newly emerging democracies to improve the situation through our environmental know-how fund.
Column 694more than 100 projects throughout eastern Europe. As eastern Europe continues to endure a horrific legacy of years of socialist central planning, is my hon. Friend prepared to consider how the environmental know-how fund might be expanded, perhaps in partnership with the private sector?
Mr. Atkins: My hon. Friend, with his knowledge of the eastern bloc countries, speaks with greater authority on the matter than almost anyone in the House and I pay great heed to anything he has to say. I assure him that we shall continue to consider ways and means whereby we can help those emerging democracies, and any ideas that he has to add to what we are already doing will be gratefully accepted.
Mr. A. Cecil Walker: Much as I appreciate the Minister's actions in respect of other countries, will he continue to bear in mind Northern Ireland's problems with environmental pollution, of which he is much aware?
Mr. Atkins: The hon. Gentleman raises a point which could take us down a long and difficult path. He will understand that not all such problems can be solved quickly. I am sure that my successors in Northern Ireland, doing the job that I once did, are as aware as the hon. Gentleman of the need to continue the good work of environmental improvement there.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Robert B. Jones): On 1 April 1994, there were some 1.1 million applicants--the lowest figure recorded since information was first collected in 1986.
Mr. Cohen: Are not the Government proposing to make it harder for people to join housing waiting lists and to obtain the homes that they need? The demand will still be there, but people will be told that they cannot get on a waiting list and have no chance of rehousing while the Government claim, as the Minister just did, that they are getting waiting lists down. Is not the real problem shortage of supply? Ministers like to make comparisons with the last Labour Government. In the final year of the Labour Government, there were 107,000 starts on homes to rent, but next year the figure will be down to 20,000. Does the Minister accept that if starts returned to the level under the last Labour Government more people would be decently housed?
Mr. Jones: We do not share the hon. Gentleman's obsession with that form of tenure. It is right and proper that there should be a choice of tenure which reflects the aspirations of the public. The waiting list in the London borough of Waltham Forest has fallen by 20 per cent. in the last two years.
Column 695authorities to make sure that they are brought into use. Under-occupied and vacant council housing means that people do not get homes that they might otherwise obtain.
Mr. Matthew Taylor: Does the Minister accept that there are particular problems with homelessness in rural areas, especially where house prices are high due to an influx of people who work elsewhere or who wish to own second homes? Such areas are particularly worried about cuts in the housing association programme, which mean that some associations will be unable to build any new homes in the coming years. At the same time, many councils are unable to build and have sold off a large proportion of their already low housing stock.
Mr. Jones: The Housing Corporation programme provides for a top slice for rural housing, which we have maintained as an important ingredient. The challenge for rural local authorities is the same as that facing authorities in general--to use their stock to best advantage, which means that they, too, must have proper strategies to deal with under- occupation and to command what available lettings there are in the private rented sector.
Mr. Duncan Smith: I thank my right hon. Friend for that long reply. There is a dichotomy, in that many constituencies have major arterial roads --in my constituency it is the north circular--running through them. When a large superstore is developed on such a road, that adversely affects local shopping areas. Does my right hon. Friend agree that careful thought must be given to such developments as their adverse effect on high streets is the same as that caused by out-of-town developments?
Mr. Gummer: My final sentence described the hiatus that occurs on local roads when an arterial route is built. My hon. Friend is right: the way in which arterial roads draw populations from outside and often attract business away from local shopping centres is a real issue. We are determined to improve and enhance existing shopping centres and to ensure that the public have better access to them so that those centres can grow and bring new vitality to our towns and small areas.
Mr. Heppell: Will the Minister also take into account the dangers of the increased traffic associated with arterial roads? In my constituency there are two planned superstore developments on Valley road, both near accident black spots. Will he give a guarantee that if the submissions are referred to him he will take such factors into consideration?
Mr. Gummer: I am, of course, very concerned with road safety. One of my beliefs is that if we can give new life to city centres and the centres of small towns, and if we can make proper provision for the motor car so that people can use their cars to shop, park them safely and
Column 696walk from the parking place to the shops-- that would probably involve using closed circuit television--we could do a great deal to make them feel that such centres are pleasant, welcoming places. They ought also to be places where we can reduce the number of accidents by designing urban communities properly.
Mr. Hawksley: Will my right hon. Friend ensure that his current policy on superstores will not adversely affect the application for the Merry Hill development in the west midlands, which would result in a welcome influx of some £8 million of private money? I hope that the slight change which seems to have occurred in Government policy will not result in any delay in that application being dealt with.
Mr. Gummer: It would be wrong for me to judge an application on the Floor of the House; I shall look at each one on its merits. There is nothing in our proposition to suggest that out-of-town development is always wrong. We are saying that the balance should be changed and that greater weight should be given to the needs of city centres and the centres of our smaller towns. It is that balance that we have changed. The change has been extremely successful, people in the country at large believe it to be correct, and we shall continue with it.
Mr. Robert B. Jones: Figures are not yet available for 1994. In 1993, however, 90,000 grants were made under the new provisions of part VIII of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989. In 1984 and 1989 local authorities awarded 229,000 and 98,000 home improvement grants respectively.
Mr. O'Brien: Do not the figures prove that the grant system for renovation, improvements and community activities is wholly inadequate and is not working? As the Government have repeatedly cut the money provided over the years, local authorities now cannot even provide mandatory grants and it is quite impossible to supply discretionary grants. When will the Minister do something for people who are living in sub-standard accommodation and squalor? When may we expect the Government to provide the resources to improve accommodation and bring it up to the standards to which people are entitled?
Mr. Jones: Concerns about the renovation grant system were expressed to me and to other Ministers during the housing investment programme round and at other times, and we have been consulting on what to do about the long-term strategy for renovation. We shall announce our conclusions in due course. It was wrong for the hon. Gentleman to say that there is necessarily a shortage of resources throughout the country as it varies from authority to authority. Some of them underspend their allocations. Wakefield benefited from a recent reallocation when we were able to give it a further £440,000 as a result of underspending by other authorities.
Column 697conservation wherever possible, does my hon. Friend agree that it would be a waste of money to ask every local authority to do a complete audit of how that can be done? Unless a great deal more money can be obtained from the Treasury, such audits will be wasted and will use up money which could be better spent elsewhere.
Mr. Jones: It is extremely important to get information on these matters so as to be able to judge housing investment programme bids, and others. We have been requiring local authorities to provide us with evidence of their energy efficiency strategy in order to evaluate their housing strategies. An assessment of every house would cost a great deal of money, which would be wrong, but there are now plenty of systems for assessing the energy efficiency of housing without going into that sort of detail.
Mr. Raynsford: Will the Minister give a fuller reply to the main question? The figure of 90,000 includes not just renovation grants but disabled facility grants and minor works grants, most of them for small sums. If he compares like with like, he will find that the number of renovation grants has fallen dramatically since the mid and late 1980s.When will the Government recognise that thousands of people living in sub- standard housing have been waiting for years for grants which are supposed to be mandatory because the Government have not provided the money to enable local authorities to pay those grants?
Mr. Jones: As I said earlier, that is not true of all local authorities. Issues have been raised by different councils throughout the country about quantity of resources and the nature of the regime. Some councils feel that the present mandatory system stops them focusing their regeneration strategies properly on areas which really need them. We shall have to weigh all the arguments before reaching a conclusion about the future of the system.
Mr. Dalyell: Is the Secretary of State aware that when my former steelworker friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Donohoe), my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Clarke) and I made a four-hour visit to the greatest structure of the 19th century--the Forth rail bridge--we were appalled at the flaking paint, the debris of dead birds and, frankly, seagull shit on the bare steel structure? As Railtrack has other priorities, should this not be a matter for the millennium fund as the bridge is a national monument associated not only with Scotland but with Britain and Europe?
I remind the hon. Gentleman that what he has done today in asking a question as a Scottish Member is something that he would be able to do in future if Labour's devolution plans were to go through but which
Column 698no English Member would be able to do as English Members would not be able to ask questions about Scotland.
Mr. John Marshall: Will my right hon. Friend advise the House whether it would be in order to apply to the millennium fund to finance a preservation order on the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell)?
Mr. Gummer: The example that the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) put forward is one of considerable importance. I also believe, however, that we should all recognise that we have a history which is worth preserving and that part of that history is a constitution which should not be monkeyed about with.
Mr. Robert B. Jones: For St. Helens it is £652 and for Westminster £245. If St. Helens were to spend at the same rate as Westminster relative to standard spending assessment, the band D council tax in St. Helens would be £224--even lower than in Westminster.
Mr. Evans: Will the Minister acknowledge that St. Helens and Westminster city councils are roughly the same size and cover roughly the same population? Will he acknowledge also that the reason for the appalling figures that he has announced is that for every £1 that Westminster city councils spends it receives 97p in Government rate support grant while St. Helens city council receives only 77p? Would the hon. Gentleman be surprised to hear from me that the people of St. Helens increasingly regard an RSG system which creates enormous disparities between broadly similar authorities as utterly corrupt?
Mr. Jones: To describe St. Helens and Westminster as broadly similar authorities is ridiculous, just as it would be ridiculous to compare St. Helens with, for example, the London borough of Hackney, which also receives a high standard spending assessment. As the hon. Gentleman knows, SSA reflects a range of factors which are different in different authorities. For example, millions of visitors and commuters come into Westminster, which is not the case in St. Helens. An apt comparison is what would happen if St. Helens spent as far below its SSA as Westminster did, and I commend that to the hon. Gentleman's local authority.
Mr. Congdon: Does my hon. Friend agree that, if other inner-London boroughs that get similar resources from the Government to those of Westminster were as efficient as Westminster, there would be no reason why they should not have a similarly low council tax? Is not Westminster's low council tax a tribute to the fact that it has been at the forefront of contracting out and, wherever it can, it seeks out and roots out waste?
Mr. Jones: What my hon. Friend says is absolutely correct. If other local authorities in inner London were as persistent in examining the cost- effectiveness of their administration, they would end up with the dividends for their council tax payers.
Column 699show that the Government are pouring taxpayers' money into Westminster to keep down the council tax there, at the expense of money being available for other places, such as St. Helens? Why should other parts of Britain, including the parts represented by Conservative Members, have to suffer because the Government have to give extra money to Westminster to make up for the £3 million that they squandered on the cemeteries, the £21 million on the homes for votes scandal and the £13 million that Westminster Tories forgot to collect in service and repair charges from the people who bought their council houses?
Mr. Jones: The hon. Gentleman is a Member for the London borough of Camden, the SSA for which is almost exactly the same per capita as for the London borough of Westminster. I assume, therefore, that, as the figures came out of the same system, he wants the grant to the London borough of Camden to be cut dramatically. I think that he will have awful difficulty with the councillors on his selection board when he goes up for reselection.
Mr. Harry Greenway: Does my hon. Friend agree that Westminster provides services that are much appreciated by the citizens of Westminster, but in Ealing, a comparable area, the Labour council is drastically reducing services as well as putting up the council tax by 10 per cent? Is that not socialism as we see it in this country?
Mr. Jones: If one needs to judge socialism, the best place in which to look is where it is practised--Labour-controlled authorities. What my hon. Friend says about the London borough of Ealing will, I am sure, get home as a very important message to the electors of Ealing, North for the next general election.
Mr. Curry: A second bidding round of the single regeneration budget will be launched later this year. Some £40 million will be available in 1996-97 for early funding of approved bids and £200 million the following year.
Mr. Dowd: I thank the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that the London borough of Lewisham, which has an exemplary record in public-private finance partnerships, including city challenge and estate action, is still unaware of the status of the three unsuccessful first-round bids in relation to the second round of bidding, which is due to commence shortly? Does he agree that his Department has a responsibility to provide all local authorities with unambiguous and clear guidelines at the earliest opportunity if they are to persist with their cut-price, gameshow approach to urban regeneration?
Mr. Curry: If it is a cut-price approach, I am surprised that the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) said that he thought that the sums spent on it were about right; he said that Labour would spend roughly the same amount of money.
The hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dowd) has forgotten, perhaps, that Lewisham received £14 million from the urban programme, that Deptford city challenge is receiving £37.5 million over five years and that the task force is receiving £1 million of Government money and
Column 700£10 million levied from other sources. There are four major estate action programmes worth £83 million of public funds, two successful SRB bids related to ethnic minorities, and the docklands light railway extension, so it ain't a bad record as far as Lewisham is concerned.
As for the Deptford creek project, the local authority will have been in discussion with the Government office about the nature of that bid. The bidding will not change so substantially for the second round that the bids that did not qualify this time will not be eligible as candidates in the second round. Clearly, one cannot prejudge the outcome.
Mr. Nicholas Winterton: Sadly, Macclesfield was unsuccessful in the first round under this programme--perhaps even more so than Lewisham, Macclesfield being one of the few councils still with overall Conservative control, well run, abiding by every regulation that the Government request of it. Does my hon. Friend accept that, even in an area that is considered to be prosperous, there are pockets of deprivation and poverty and that this project can uniquely assist in such areas? Will he give me an assurance that any further application from Macclesfield will receive his sympathetic consideration?
Mr. Curry: My hon. Friend will know that the single regeneration budget has national coverage, so all areas in the country are eligible to bid. There were successful bids from rural and urban areas. I cannot give my hon. Friend an assurance that a bid will receive sympathetic consideration any more than I can say that it will receive unsympathetic consideration. However, the regional office will be working with the partners to ensure that any problems or deficiencies in a bid are pointed out so that the authorities are capable of bidding in the second round.
Mr. Vaz: The Minister is clearly not aware of the huge costs and the great difficulties faced by those local authorities that have been unsuccessful in their first round bids. Will he ensure that, before the second round begins, a detailed regional statement is produced by the regional offices--something that he failed to have produced at the last round of the SRB--so that local authorities know precisely what the criteria will be, or is it the case that the statement cannot be published because the Government do not have a clue what their regeneration policy should be?
Mr. Curry: That is rather rich coming from the hon. Gentleman, who is allegedly the author of "City 2020", which sank without trace soon after being launched; even the assistance of the mayor of Baltimore could not rescue that document. The regional office has instructions to work with all the partners in order to point out where there were deficiencies so that they are capable of bidding for the second time around. [Interruption.] It is not a blind date process. It is done with a great deal of consideration.
The best bids won this time, but we do not intend that those that were unsuccessful should not be capable of putting their bid in order so that they can bid the second time around, when their bid will be judged on its merits in competition with other bids.
Mr. McLoughlin: Is my hon. Friend aware that the Government are often accused of diverting money to areas that support the Government's case? Will he therefore explain to me why, under the single regeneration budget,
Column 701the two most successful areas in Derbyshire were Bolsover and Chesterfield? Are they well known for their support of Government policies?
Mr. Curry: I am tempted to say that it clearly must reflect the particular characteristics of the Members of Parliament concerned, but I do not wish to mislead the House on the matter. It happened because those bids, which were the result of public and private sector support, were among the best bids in the region. That demonstrates that this is not a political process; it is based on the merits of a bid in a competitive process which has proved to be successful.
11. Mr. Mullin: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what recent discussions he has had with the National Rivers Authority regarding pollution from abandoned mine workings; and if he will make a statement.
Mr. Mullin: As the Minister knows, there is much concern in the north-east and elsewhere on this issue. Will he assure the House that the Coal Authority will continue to fund the pumping of abandoned mine workings for as long as the NRA thinks is necessary, bearing in mind the fact that, if it all goes wrong, the cost of clearing up will be much greater than the cost of the pumping?
Sir Donald Thompson: As my hon. Friend says, disused coal mines are fairly well catered for, but mines from which other minerals came seem to have been completely forgotten, especially those whose ownership has been lost in the mists of time; a similar situation applies to quarries. Will my hon. Friend consider that?
Mr. Atkins: My hon. Friend is right to raise that matter, which will be dealt with in the Environment Bill, which is being discussed in another place. We will be interested to hear what he has to say on the matter when it arrives at this end.
Ms Ruddock: Is the Minister aware that, under the Environment Bill, polluting water from abandoned mines will continue to emanate therefrom until the turn of the century? Why is liability to prosecution not to be imposed until 1999? Could it be because the contracts of private mine owners with the power generators come up for renewal in 1998 and the Government expect more mines to be abandoned at that point? Is that not just another example of a Government trying to protect private profits over the environment?
Mr. Atkins: As usual, the hon. Lady is living in cloud cuckoo land. We are dealing with the real world, in which we must give as much warning as possible to those involved. That is why we consider 1999 an appropriate date. I have no doubt that, when the matter is discussed as we debate the Environment Bill, the hon. Lady will make similar points and I shall give a similar response.
Column 702Mr. Devlin: Should not those who close mines in future have to give the new agency ample notice of their intentions, and also state what provision they will make for the pumping that may be necessary thereafter?
Mr. Atkins: Yes, and we hope that the Bill will contain precisely that recommendation. We intend, for instance, that six months' notice will be required in 1999. My hon. Friend's points will be taken on board.
12. Mr. Chisholm: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment when he expects to make a decision about the proposal to use local authority landfill sites for the dumping of low-level nuclear waste.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir Paul Beresford): Currently, hospitals, universities and laboratoriedispose of low-level radioactive waste at a small number of landfill sites under strictly controlled conditions. By low-level radioactive waste, I mean rubber gloves, wrappings and clothing, for instance, that may have been contaminated in the handling of radioactive material such as that used in the treatment of cancer. The extent of use of this method has been reviewed, the results have been out to consultation and conclusions will be announced in due course.
Mr. Chisholm: Will the Minister reject the recommendation of his own Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee that local authorities should be forced to accept low-level nuclear waste, including waste from nuclear power stations, against their wishes? Does he admit that that is a cost-cutting proposal, connected at least in part with future privatisation of the nuclear industry?