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Sir Paul Beresford: Hon. Members on both sides of the House put the point rather well; it is absolute nonsense. The committee to which the hon. Gentleman refers is an advisory committee, and is not forcing anyone to do anything.

Mr. Fabricant: Will my hon. Friend confirm that low-level waste usually has a half life of only a few months? That means that, after a couple of years, the level of radioactivity is asymptotic to zero and virtually non-existent.

Sir Paul Beresford: My hon. Friend has put the matter into perspective. The radioactivity level is extremely low, and if any movement took place in the wrong direction there would be an outcry from the national health authorities about disposal facilities.

Noise Working Party

13. Mr. Simon Hughes: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment when he expects the working party on noise to complete its work; if it will take evidence; and in what form it will publish its conclusions.

Mr. Atkins: The working party expects to complete its review shortly, and I intend to consult extensively on its conclusions and recommendations.

Mr. Hughes: That answer is welcome. I believe, however, that the working party is composed of officials


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from the Home Office and other Departments, the police and local government; out there, the public want their shout on the issue. I consider that the public take a much harder line than officials on the need to be tough on noise makers. Will the Minister guarantee that they will have their say, and that their views will prevail rather than those of enforcement agencies which often want an easy life?

Mr. Atkins: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's support. He will know of the campaign being run by The Mail on Sunday and the responses-- more than 30,000--that it has received: it is welcome that the newspaper has taken such a public interest in the issue. We have sought the advice not only of the Departments to which the hon. Gentleman refers but of others, including environmental health officers, who are very much in the front line. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the conclusions of the working party, which will report in the not too distant future. I am only too aware of the problems of noise, not only in urban but in rural areas, and I intend to do something about them.

Town and Parish Councils

15. Mr. Rendel: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what plans he has to set up town and parish councils in unparished areas.

Mr. Gummer: I am on record as being very much in favour of parish councils and am looking at ways in which we can enhance their role.

Mr. Rendel: I welcome the Secretary of State's support for parish councils. Regardless of what he does about other recommendations for Berkshire, will he confirm that the strong recommendation for the creation of a parish council for Newbury will be accepted, in line with the long- standing thoughts of local people?

Mr. Gummer: I shall certainly look at that and also at the difficulty under present legislation, which is that if an ancient town already has some sort of trust council it cannot also have parish council status. Many towns want to keep their historic regalia and historic ways of doing things and have the powers that a parish council may give to them. I am looking to see whether we can find a way around that difficulty.

Mr. Thomason: Does my right hon. Friend agree that some areas do not actively seek parish status and that we should not rush down the road of establishing new parishes unless there is clearly a genuine need for doing so?

Mr. Gummer: I am sure that some places do not look for this status. However, I hope that we shall encourage those other authorities, district and county councils, which in recent months have made clear their desire to work with parishes and give them greater powers-- which, of course, is in their remit--to continue down that road after the announcements of the final decisions on local government reorganisation. I should not like any of those


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who have promised such co-operation during the run-up to the decisions to forget those promises when they have achieved the status that they sought.

Mr. Pike: Is it the Government's view that a parish council should have the right to levy a precept and that a nation which is a part of the United Kingdom should not have the right to levy a tax?

Mr. Gummer: It is certainly the Government's view that the present arrangements for precepting should continue. However, it is not our view that we should so break up the United Kingdom that there should be tax- levying powers in other parts of it in circumstances in which Members of this House would have no right to ask questions about how those taxes were raised or spent.

Homelessness

16. Mr. David Nicholson: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what progress he is making with reducing homelessness.

Mr. Curry: Over the past two and a half years, there have been successive reductions in the number of households accepted by local authorities as homeless.

Mr. Nicholson: I am glad to hear that there has been progress on this issue. Does my hon. Friend agree that success in this matter involves co-operation with other Departments, especially the Department of Social Security, and with local authorities and voluntary organisations? Does he further agree that individuals have different reasons for homelessness? In some cases, it may be because of the breakdown in caring community facilities. Would he question the right of people publicly to sleep in the streets and publicly to beg?

Mr. Curry: I agree with my hon. Friend that there are many reasons for people being homeless. I am extremely happy to praise the good work of the voluntary organisations in this matter. We depend heavily on them and co-operate successfully with them. It is thanks to their efforts and the partnership which we have created that the figures have come down so dramatically. We wish to make sure that we settle and deal with this problem effectively wherever it occurs.

Mr. Soley: Perhaps the Minister will explain where homeless people are to sleep if it is not on the streets. They do not have anywhere to live. Does he recall a report by the Duke of Edinburgh's committee a few years ago, which was supported by the churches and various other experts on housing, that a loss of 2 million rented sector houses, which are not being replaced, was a primary cause of homelessness and housing queues? Why does he think that he has got it right and both God and the royal family have got it wrong?

Mr. Curry: Clearly, I was not the Minister at that time. [Hon. Members:-- "Oh."] My memory is certainly good enough to recall that. If the hon. Gentleman is referring to the right to buy, he is referring to people who had secure tenancies and were therefore occupying houses which they would have occupied as rented tenants in any case. That means people have not taken houses that would otherwise be available; they are living in the same houses under a different form of tenure.


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Rural Challenge

17. Mr. Bellingham: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment when he next expects to meet representatives of parish councils in East Anglia to discuss rural challenge.

Mr. Atkins: My right hon. Friend has no plans to do so.

Mr. Bellingham: Does my hon. Friend agree that, when dealing with local matters, parish councils often understand much more about rural areas and the needs of their communities than district or county councils? Does he further agree that more influence and weight should be given to parish councils? Will he confirm that when he frames his policies for the countryside, he will listen to local people on matters such as access to the countryside and country sports? Will he pledge to do all that he can to listen to the views of local people in rural areas?

Mr. Atkins: My hon. Friend will have heard my right hon. Friend show his affection for parish councils and I join him and my hon. Friend in that. My hon. Friend speaks with great knowledge about the countryside and I shall listen to him, to his constituents and to others with similar views and interests during progress on the White Paper on rural matters, which we intend to publish towards the end of the year.

Housing Statistics

20. Mr. Winnick: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what was the number of (a) local authority and (b) housing association dwellings started in 1978 and (c) the estimated number in each category for 1994.

Mr. Robert B. Jones: Housing associations started 17,900 new dwellings in England in 1978. We estimate that they will have started over 33,000 new dwellings in 1994. English local authorities started 67,600 dwellings in 1978, with new towns starting a further 7,000 dwellings. We estimate that they will start fewer than 500 dwellings in 1994. This change reflects the shift to an enabling role for local authorities with housing associations becoming the main providers of new social housing.

Mr. Winnick: Does the Minister recognise that the comparison between 1978 and today illustrates only too well why so many people face such appalling difficulties in trying to find, usually without any success, affordable rented accommodation? Is he aware that when I leave here in the evening and walk up Whitehall, within five minutes of the Palace of Westminster I see a sight that I certainly did not witness before 1979-- people sleeping out in the rain and the cold, because they have no alternative? They are among the victims of the Government's callous housing policy, which has left so many people homeless or near homeless.

Mr. Jones: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was in the House earlier when I answered a question from the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) about waiting lists. I told him that they had fallen substantially.

We cannot cover every blade of grass with new housing development. We must ensure that there is a proper balance between building new homes, with the costs associated with that, and ensuring that existing housing stock is properly used.

Mr. Hendry: Will my hon. Friend confirm that what really matters is the number of new lettings made every


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year? Will he further confirm that last year there was the highest number of new lettings since 1979? Lettings are on the increase.

Mr. Jones: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes a valuable point. Local authorities, with their new enabling role, can ensure that lettings are available not just in the public sector but in the private sector. Some local authorities whose representatives I met during the recent housing investment programme rounds have been much more successful than others at managing to persuade owners of empty properties in the private sector to make them available for rent. I commend that strategy to all local authorities--it is copying the successes of the best.

Mr. Dobson: Why will not the Minister admit that, despite the claim that housing associations have taken on the role of councils, the figures that he has quoted show that the number of houses available for letting by councils and housing associations together has more than halved? Roughly speaking, 50 council houses were built in 1979 for every one that this rotten, mean-minded Government are building today.

Mr. Jones: The hon. Gentleman seems to think that money grows on trees. The only suggestion he has for making more money available is to release capital receipts, which would have a dramatic effect on council taxes as well as driving up borrowing. That would be most unsatisfactory in present circumstances. The hon. Gentleman also sets his face against harnessing private money for the redevelopment of housing and the creation of new housing. I commend the large-scale voluntary transfers as a way of getting additional resources for housing.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Do not the figures that my hon. Friend just quoted represent a real achievement in helping the homeless? Do they not make the Labour party's professions on wanting to care for the homeless seem extremely hollow?

Mr. Jones: What the Labour party wants more than anything else is for people to be captives in the public sector, which is the very opposite of our view. We believe that people should realise their aspirations to be home owners or to rent, whichever they want.

Carbon Dioxide Emissions

21. Mr. Bennett: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what contributions he now expects to the reduction of carbon dioxide required by Rio targets to be contributed by value added tax on domestic fuel, rises in transport fuel duties, action by the Energy Saving Trust, energy conservation measures in building regulations and other schemes.

Mr. Atkins: We are currently reviewing the contributions expected from the measures in our climate change programme in the light of recent developments, and will also be taking account of the revised energy projections on which the Department of Trade and Industry is working. The climate change convention requires us to take measures aimed at returning emissions of CO and other greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2000 and we are committed to fulfilling these requirements.


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Mr. Bennett: When will the review be completed? Can the Minister confirm that unless the Energy Saving Trust has some money, it will be unable to carry out any of the work that the Government intend it to do?

Mr. Atkins: As soon as possible, and yes, Madam Speaker.

Mr. David Shaw: Will my hon. Friend confirm that the home energy efficiency savings scheme has been remarkably successful? Many hon. Members have seen equipment installed in constituents' homes. Will he confirm that people are eligible for some £300 of Government assistance if they install energy conservation equipment in their homes? Will he also confirm that the Government will continue the scheme and that it will save a considerable amount of energy?

Mr. Atkins: My hon. Friend is entirely right. I have been involved in a scheme at a house in my constituency which I found interesting, and those who have received the grant have certainly been pleased. The scheme was increased substantially last year by an

energy-conscious Government and Department, and it will be increased this year by a further £30 million by the energy-conscious Chancellor, Secretary of State and Ministers. We intend to keep our objective because we know--perhaps more than anyone-- how important energy efficiency is.

Mr. Dafis: Does the Minister accept that energy in all of its aspects is the central environmental consideration, and that it therefore ought to be the central matter in relation to the environment agency legislation? What proposals do the Government have to ensure that the new agency will be able to offer guidance to other Departments, such as the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Transport, on energy policies?

Mr. Atkins: I suggest that the hon. Gentleman either awaits the passage of the Bill or goes to another place to hear the discussions which are going on about the matter. When the Bill is brought to this place, the hon. Gentleman will find much to excite him.

Local Authority Leaseholders

22. Mr. Gerrard: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will introduce measures to assist local authority leaseholders who are encountering difficulty selling their homes.

Mr. Curry: I hope to introduce a revised scheme in the spring.

Mr. Gerrard: That is welcome news. Is the Minister aware that council leaseholders are lobbying here this afternoon and that they have only invited Tory Members as they think that Tory Members need educating about the effects of believing Government propaganda about buying their flats? Some local authorities are willing in principle to buy back the flats of people who were persuaded by the Government to buy their flats and who now find that they cannot sell them, but the authorities cannot because they do not have the capital. Is it not about time that those people were given some help to get out of the trap in which they have found themselves?

Mr. Curry: The hon. Gentleman ought to know that the Government are concerned about the position of


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leaseholders who are unable to raise mortgages on properties which they have bought. We are working hard on a scheme to introduce a more flexible form of agreement which local authorities can use to assist in the sale of flats by indemnifying commercial mortgage lending to new purchasers. We are also looking at an exchange sales scheme to help local authorities to take back certain flats which have been affected by mortgageability difficulties in exchange for selling leaseholders another home more suitable for their needs.

Madam Speaker: Mr. David Tredinnick. Mr. John Spellar. Mr. Rhodri Morgan. Mr. John Battle. It is a total disgrace that Members are absent without apologising either to the Minister or to me.

Planning Legislation

27. Mr. Cox: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what proposals he has for a review of planning legislation.

Mr. Gummer: I shall consider the need for amending legislation in the light of the Government's imminent response to the report "Shopping Centres and Their Future" by the Select Committee on the Environment, and of the follow-up to the symposium on quality in town and country which I hosted last month.

Mr. Cox: Hon. Members on both sides of the House will welcome the Secretary of State's reply, in view of the earlier exchanges. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that many of our constituencies are now facing massive supermarket developments, and that there is a real fear of their effect on existing trading centres? Is there not also a fear that the concerns and the opposition of constituents are, frankly, not being listened to?

Mr. Gummer: We are looking carefully at each of the cases. In the first round, it is for the local authority to make the planning decisions. The hon. Gentleman will know that I want to ensure that the balance and bias are towards the invigoration of town and city centres. At the same time, we must ensure that we raise the quality of what we build. Far too often, we have allowed our city centres to be disfigured by poor buildings, built in poor styles and with a poor lifetime ahead of them. I hope soon to be able to see the Marsham street towers in which I work pulled down. It is a bad building which is badly built, and it did not enhance the city centre. I hope that the building into which we will move before we pull that down will be better.

Sewage Outfalls

28. Mr. Ainger: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment how many sewage outfalls into British rivers and the sea discharge untreated sewage, other than by maceration.

Sir Paul Beresford: Some 96 per cent. of the United Kingdom population is connected to a sewerage system. A total of 83 per cent. of sewage is treated and 90 per cent. of this receives secondary treatment or better. The proportions, already high in comparison with those in many continental countries, will rise as a result of investment over the next few years.

Mr. Ainger: Does the Minister accept that there is still a serious problem in our rivers and around our


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coast? A recent survey showed that our beaches are not getting any cleaner. Is it not about time that the Government insisted that all river and sea discharges were worth tertiary treatment, so that we do not have the problems that have been experienced on, for example, the Gower peninsula where there has been possible infection as a result of sewage discharges into Carmarthen bay? Is it not time that we tackled this problem seriously by insisting on tertiary treatment of all sewage discharges?

Sir Paul Beresford: The hon. Gentleman should put the matter into perspective. Compared with other countries, the United Kingdom is among the highest in


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the provision of treatment. Given the nature of the climate, the beaches are much cleaner than the hon. Gentleman is insinuating. We must tackle a problem such as this in the nature of priorities.

Mr. Skinner: What is the Minister doing here? He is supposed to be pulling teeth.

Sir Paul Beresford: The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) obviously requires a dentist. I am prepared to see him free of charge--not even under the national health service--and extract his teeth without a local anaesthetic.

Madam Speaker: On that note, time is up.


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