Mr. Waterson: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer and for giving a sympathetic hearing to the delegation from my constituency, which I led. Although I am aware that he is still considering those complicated matters, will he give every weight to the strong support expressed by members of the delegation, who represented all shades of opinion in the town, for a unitary authority, so that the town can revert to running its own affairs as it did before 1974?
Mr. Curry: My hon. Friend brought an effective delegation to meet me. It was led by business people, with the council taking a relative back seat, which was sensible. I will examine the intrinsic merits of my hon. Friend's objective together with the position of the residual county, in the context of the powers available to us.
Sir Timothy Sainsbury: My hon. Friend will be aware of the results of the household survey by Hove borough council, which had a remarkable 33 per cent. response rate. It revealed that 77 per cent. of respondents opposed the joining of Hove with Brighton. I have received almost 600 individually written letters, all but six of which also opposed union with Brighton. Will my hon. Friend take into account evidence of public opinion on that important issue?
2. Miss Emma Nicholson: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what assessment he has made of how planning policies can be used more effectively to meet the objectives of sustainable development.
Miss Nicholson: In my constituency planners are under external pressure to develop green-field sites, which is unpopular with local people. Will Government guidelines be applied fiercely to ensure that infill and derelict sites are used first, and that guidelines are strictly enforced in green-field areas?
Mr. Gummer: My hon. Friend is right to point out that it is often easier to develop a green-field site than to reuse previously developed land. Every effort is made to ensure that the balance is firmly in favour of the reuse of old sites and the redevelopment and regeneration of city and
Column 982town centres. There will be occasions when a green-field site is most appropriate, but the case for that would have to be extremely well made out.
Mr. Bennett: The Government's revision of planning policy guidelines 6 and 16 is welcome, but will the right hon. Gentleman consider regional guidance? Is he aware that there is still pressure on local authorities in north-west England in particular to identify green-field sites for the development of business parks and similar projects? Is not it high time that all the emphasis was placed on regenerating inner-city derelict land and that local authorities were discouraged from making planning proposals for green-field developments?
Mr. Gummer: I am a little worried when I am asked to put all the emphasis on particular areas. Planning should not be about insisting on a prescriptive answer in every circumstance, irrespective of the position. The hon. Gentleman may agree that there are many instances in which business parks have brought jobs to the north-west and elsewhere in the UK. A proper decision should be made in each case, but we should be clear that the bias is towards the redevelopment of old land and the regeneration of city and town centres. The hon. Gentleman has my support in putting pressure on local authorities which sometimes do not exhibit as much urgent concern as we do.
Sir Kenneth Carlisle: Does my right hon. Friend accept that those of us who represent city constituencies are very concerned that their centre should retain their vitality, and that we very much welcome the change of emphasis to restore them? Will he ensure that the policy that he has proposed is carried through to effective action?
Mr. Gummer: There is no doubt that there is a very good example of partnership in the city of Lincoln between the private and the public sector. That is the way forward for regeneration generally. We are putting into place the planning environment to help that. I wish that some local authorities, which still prefer to provide car parking as a means of raising money rather than invigorating the town centre, would take up the challenge, because car parking is much better provided by private enterprise--it tends to be rather less smelly apart from anything else.
The Minister for the Environment and Countryside (Mr. Robert Atkins): There is a level below which it is uneconomical to make efforts to reduce water leakage. That said, the latest estimate, based on information from the water companies, is around 29 per cent. We expect leakage to be reduced by around 20 per cent. over the next 20 years.
Mrs. Jackson: Is the Minister aware that 29 per cent. leakage is quite unacceptable? Is he aware of the view of the National Rivers Authority, which says that action by the water companies to halve that figure would make it quite unnecessary for them to go in for the unhealthy and
Column 983dangerous practice of compulsory water metering, which puts the pressure on the customer rather than the company? Will he take steps to ban that practice, so that pressure for investment is put on the companies to deal with that leakage?
Mr. Atkins: I would like the House to know the facts. First, most of that water leakage comes from domestic pipes, not company pipes. Secondly, there is a level below which it is uneconomical to go--that figure is of the average of 15 per cent. Thirdly, water companies have already spent some £3.7 billion on infrastructure support over the past few years, designed to cope with some of the problems. Fourthly--ironically, in view of the hon. Lady's obsessive campaign against water metering--the increased incidence of water metering will help to solve the problems of leakage.
Mr. Rowe: Is not it self-evident that if individual households have a clear desire and interest in reducing the leakage from their own premises, that they will do? There is no substitute for individual responsibility. Does my hon. Friend agree that that principle of individual responsibility about leakage could equally well be applied to the Cabinet?
Mr. Atkins: My hon. Friend's point is apposite in relation to what Opposition Members are saying. They, supposedly, sign up to the principle of sustainable development, but when faced with a situation in which individuals, as well as others, are encouraged to take notice of leakage and the problems of maintaining water--a resource that we must watch carefully--they seem to avoid the practical realities of it. My hon. Friend is quite right to point out that problem.
Ms Glenda Jackson: What does the Minister think about the announcement by Thames Water only this week to renege on a commitment of £2.1 billion over five years in capital investment, which was reflected in an agreed price rise, and of its announcement that that capital investment programme will be reduced by £350 million, but that there will be no concomitant reduction in charges to householders? On average, domestic bills could be reduced by £10. Thames Water also announces with some pride that it will take a very tough line on non-payers in relation to disconnections. Surely that is not a state of affairs that the Government should allow to happen now or ever again in the future.
Mr. Atkins: I cannot comment on the detail of the case, which is a matter for the Director General of Water Services. In general terms, Thames Water provides the cheapest water anywhere in the nation, and does so extremely well. I am delighted to hear that it is putting pressure on bad payers. The number of disconnections has decreased year on year, and to have that power in reserve is popular with the users of water throughout the country. All the indications are that that power in reserve is necessary and is supported by those who normally pay--the vast majority of the users of the commodity.
Mr. Curry: Thirty-six local authorities have transferred almost 162,000 dwellings. We are working with metropolitan authorities to identify ways of taking the policy forward there as well as in the shires.
Mr. Whittingdale: Will my hon. Friend congratulate the tenants of Maldon district council, 80 per cent. of whom voted in favour of transfer to the Plume housing association? Is he aware that that transfer will raise some £22 million, which can be used for the benefit of residents of the district? Will he, or one of his colleagues, consider accepting the council's invitation to attend the transfer ceremony?
We expect the local authority to complete its negotiation with the housing association shortly. That will clear the way for my right hon. Friend to make the final decision. My colleagues and I are always anxious to visit our hon. Friends' constituencies; indeed, I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones), the Parliamentary Under- Secretary of State for the Environment, plans to visit the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, South and Maldon (Mr. Whittingdale) shortly.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Robert B. Jones): We received no representations from Essex county council during the period of consultation on the proposed revenue support grant settlement. The council did query data on pupil numbers with the Department for Education during the consultation period, and wrote to my officials on 31 January on the same matter.
Mr. Amess: Does my hon. Friend share my disgust at the fact that, despite substantial reserves and one of the best-ever settlements last year, socialist-controlled Essex county council's social services department ran out of money in October, blocking 79 beds at Basildon hospital, increasing waiting times at the accident and emergency unit and lengthening hospital waiting lists? Does he agree that, in the light of such incompetence, those socialist county councillors should resign or we should impeach them?
Mr. Jones: My hon. Friend rightly stresses the difference between socialist-controlled councils and others, but there is a wide variation in the effectiveness and efficiency even of councils not controlled by the Conservative party. For instance, Hertfordshire county council--whose area I represent--did not run out of money for that purpose, because it managed its money properly.
Mr. Dobson: Does the Minister accept that, as a result of a local government grant settlement that does not meet the cost of pay increases, a number of services in Essex will be reduced--including police and schools provision--and the council tax will generally rise? Does that not confirm that in the coming year, in terms of council tax, Essex man and Essex woman will be paying more and getting less?
Mr. Jones: What happens in any local authority depends very much on the effectiveness and efficiency of that authority. What my right hon. and hon. Friends have been asking local authorities to do is precisely what businesses have to do year in, year out: become more efficient.
Dr. Spink: Is my hon. Friend aware that, as a result of its profligate and wasteful policies, Liberal and Labour-controlled Essex county council has lost £8.5 million? The cuts that it has made to recover from those losses have affected the most vulnerable members of society--the old, the disabled and the young. Will my hon. Friend call on the council to use some of its £28 million reserves to restore the amount lost through those cruel cuts?
Mr. Jones: The management of the county council's finances is a matter for it, but I certainly urge all local authorities to examine ways in which they can become more efficient and to consider how they can use their reserves most profitably.
Mr. Curry: Returns so far received from local authorities for the period to 31 December 1994 report that five sales have already been completed, and that almost 100 more applications have been accepted under the scheme.
Mr. Michie: This is yet another case of the Government getting themselves into a fine mess. Why do not they accept that the scheme is not working and that it has been expensive--the cost is estimated to be about £400,000 of taxpayers' money, which is not helping the cause? Why do not the Government admit that Labour predicted that? Instead of messing about with half-cocked schemes, the Government should start investing in new and refurbished homes to get our people off the streets and into decent housing.
Mr. Curry: As the scheme is part of the right to buy policy, I am sure that people will be interested to hear the hon. Gentleman refer to it as a half-cocked scheme. Giving people the opportunity to buy their own homes, whether through the right to buy or rent-to-mortgage schemes, gives people what many of them want. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman does not believe that that is a valid objective.
Column 986months only; and, secondly, the relationship between house prices and rents. The economic circumstances have meant that, for many people, it has made more sense to take advantage of the right-to- buy scheme, which is still yielding some 46,000 sales a year. That is what most people want. We should ensure that they have the opportunity. I am surprised that the Opposition do not believe that that should be the case.
Mr. Raynsford: Does the Minister recognise that this is an issue not of choice, but of integrity and a sense of probity in public life? The Government have wasted £414,000 promoting a scheme that the Opposition warned in Committee would be a costly flop. Does the Minister now recognise that, with a rate of one taker every three months, and with a cost, as I estimate it, of £83,000 for every person taking up the scheme, it is high time that the matter was referred to the Public Accounts Committee?
Mr. Curry: The hon. Gentleman appears to be enunciating the somewhat curious doctrine that we should introduce a scheme and then ensure that no one knows about it. If one introduces a scheme, one publicises it. This scheme is in its early stages. It is intended to be an adjunct of the right -to-buy policy. No one expected that major volumes would arise from the scheme, but it is a useful way for people in particular circumstances to have access to buying their own homes which they might not otherwise have. It is, therefore, a sensible part of a policy that is highly successful, and which the Opposition parties have opposed during the past few Parliaments. People will remember that.
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman: Will my hon. Friend accept that another acceptable method of choice would be introduced if his Department accepted the proposal of Wyre borough council to transfer its stock to a housing association, and to consult, and ballot, the tenants?
Mr. Curry: That is a sensible way of diversifying tenure because it rests on tenants' consent. It liberates resources for the refurbishment of houses that are transferred to the housing association, and it liberates resources for the local authority to use to maintain properties that remain in its possession. Everyone gains, therefore, from a sensible policy, and I commend it to the House.
Mr. Pike: Ministers have been saying for nearly a year now that the answer on the consultation will be given "shortly". Can we take it that the Minister now recognises that the biggest problem is not the scheme, but that councils have insufficient money to meet their legal
Column 987obligation to make a mandatory grant? Instead of changing the scheme, will the Government make more money available to local authorities?
Mr. Jones: We have had a number of representations, some of which have been in favour of changing the scheme--the most recent came from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) during an Adjournment debate--and some of which have been on the subject of resources. Some authorities clearly needed more money to fulfil their obligations, but others have underspent the money that we have allocated to them. That matter must also be dealt with.
Mr. Hinchliffe: During the review of disabled facilities grants, will the Minister consider in detail the operation of the means test? Is he aware that, in many instances, local authorities are having to lend individuals and families money to pay their contribution under the means test, and that there is no way in which people can repay those loans? Is he aware that, in some circumstances, people have given up the ghost because they simply could not afford to make their contribution under the means test? Will he deal with that matter as the matter of urgency?
Mr. Jones: We shall certainly examine the points that the hon. Gentleman has raised. I know that he has taken an interest in the subject for a long time. I must point out that 80 per cent. of these grants now involve no contribution from the applicant and that in other cases topping- up money is sometimes made available from local authorities' social services departments. However, I shall examine the matter carefully.
Sir Anthony Durant: I thank my hon. Friend for the extra tranche of money given to Reading borough council for the renovation grants. When considering future grants, will he bear in mind the state of the housing stock in a town such as Reading, which contains a great deal of pre-war property that is deteriorating badly?
Mr. Jones: That is one of the points that we take into account in the allocations each year, in addition to the effectiveness of the local authorities' renewal strategy. However, it is not only my hon. Friend's constituency that benefited from the extra tranche. The hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) will know that we were able to give an extra £400,000 to his local authority in the second tranche and will increase the allocation for next year still further.
Sir Donald Thompson: Does my hon. Friend accept that it is a very valuable scheme? Will he allow local authorities to cap the amount of grant that they give so that they can be made to fit local needs, prices and priorities?
Mr. Jones: My hon. Friend makes a valid point about the need for flexibility, which has been stressed to me many times by the members of local authorities whom I have met during the housing investment programme round and on other occasions. We shall be taking that idea into account before we announce our final decision on the system.
Mr. Wigley: May I press the Minister further on the position of disabled people who need grants for certain facilities but who are means tested? I draw his attention to the case of a father with a severely disabled son. He
Column 988has an income of only £200 a week and faces enormous costs because of the son's disability, but is required to pay a contribution of £10,000 towards downstairs facilities, a sum that he and his family cannot afford. Will the Minister reconsider the way in which the formulae are worked out so that such difficulties can be avoided?
Mr. Harry Greenway: Is my hon. Friend aware that a recent survey in Ealing showed that 70 per cent. of disabled and able-bodied people are highly dissatisfied with the speed and quality of the repair service offered by Ealing council? That is a very high figure and it is still rising. Will he do something to put a bomb under Ealing's Labour council to make it improve this most important service to its people?
Mr. Burden: Is the Minister aware that one way in which regeneration policies could create jobs and meet a major social need at the same time is through investment in housing? Is not it therefore pretty scandalous that the amount of money available under regeneration policies for housing has been cut with the single regeneration budget and that in Birmingham not one penny has been made available for the major housing project proposed by the council? There are 17,000 people on Birmingham's housing list, so is it not time that the Government adopted regeneration policies that are worthy of the name, created jobs and gave people the homes that they need?
Sir Paul Beresford: The hon. Gentleman will reflect that the single regeneration budget operates on a partnership basis, and the make-up of the bid was Birmingham's choice. In respect of housing, I remind him that in 1995-96 Birmingham will receive more than £22 million from the estate action programme, £12 million for Castle Vale housing action trust, £8.5 million for Heartlands urban development corporation, which includes some housing, £7.7 million for city challenge, which also includes housing and, as we ought to reflect unemployment, £1.25 million for the task force.
Mr. Key: Does my hon. Friend agree that, although regeneration policies are normally associated with the large industrial conurbations of the north, which receive most taxpayers' money, there is not a market town in the south of England or, for that matter, anywhere else in the country, that would not benefit from concentrating on urban regeneration schemes that would shift the centre of gravity of our towns back to the centre?
Column 989areas that need urban regeneration are under Labour or Liberal control, with poor quality services and high taxes imposing a burden on local businesses and the local community.
Mr. Hill: Will the Secretary of State reaffirm his policy of halting the spread of out-of-town supermarket developments, which have wreaked havoc on many local shopping centres such as Streatham high road in my constituency, where one in five shops now stands idle? To show that he is earnest in his intent, will he ensure that all appeals against such developments are now upheld?
Mr. Gummer: The hon. Gentleman will know that I cannot possibly prejudge any appeal now before me. The case of a site adjacent to Streatham is in that position, and I must therefore look at it carefully. I cannot say that all appeals will be turned down, as that would be wholly improper. I must look at each case, and sometimes the circumstances will be such that it is right to allow something which, in general, I seek to discourage. That is bound to happen. I can think of a number of cases on which the hon. Gentleman would probably agree with me, but I look at each case separately. I have made it clear to those who make such proposals that the priority is regeneration in our city and town centres and the liveliness of those centres, and I shall need extremely good proof that such a proposition does not detract from important city centre priorities before I grant permission for such developments to go ahead.
Mr. John Marshall: Will my right hon. Friend remember, when listening to the siren voice of the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill), that the consumer likes choice and parking facilities, and she is more likely to get those out of town than in Streatham high road?
Mr. Gummer: I shall not be drawn on Streatham high road. It is essential for the regeneration of our city centres that provision for parking is made, that parking is properly run and that people are given the opportunities that they expect in out-of-town centres. I agree that people like choice and they must therefore have the choice not to use their cars if they do not want to or cannot, and they must have an opportunity to choose between shops, which is what city centres offer. Choice is not enhanced by destroying town centres where comparative choice and shopping is much easier.
Mr. Vaz: We welcome the Secretary of State's recent conversion to supporting town and city centres. Why is he so afraid to be clear about whether the Government support or oppose out-of-town shopping centres? How does he propose to deal with the hundreds of outstanding planning permissions granted for those monstrous sheds which, if implemented with his approval, would destroy his planning policy?
Column 990of existence and ensured that, whenever business men wanted a new scheme, they turned them down, the whole country is littered with the results of bad local planning by Labour councils. The Labour party has done more to damage Britain's city centres than any other single force since the war. That is the problem that we face. The hon. Gentleman, who has not yet been converted to any planning policy and is in no position to say whether I have, should contain himself. Our policy supports city and town centres and the growth of the kind of life that we want there. Those who have already gained planning permission for a site will be able to retain it, because, unlike the Opposition, the Government do not go back on their promises.
Mr. Robert B. Jones: On 1 February, the House approved the Local Government Finance Report (England) 1995-96, which specified the basis of the revenue support grant for each authority. We have no plans to make any further statement on that grant for the coming year.
Sir David Madel: My hon. Friend will be aware of the representations that I have made to the Government about the spending limit of Bedfordshire for 1995-96. Will he confirm that Bedfordshire county council still has time to make a case for raising its spending limit for 1995-96, but that it is also within its power, and it is perfectly capable of doing so, to protect school budgets next year?
Mr. Jones: What my hon. Friend says about the proposals is perfectly true. I find it difficult to understand how the Labour and Liberal majority on Bedfordshire county council can possibly translate what is an allowance to increase its spending into an attempt to impose cuts on schools. That simply shows how antagonistic it is towards education.
Mr. Dobson: Does the Minister accept that the local government grant settlement, for which most Bedfordshire Tory Members voted a couple of weeks ago, will mean cuts in expenditure by Bedfordshire county council and Bedfordshire districts, such as Luton? The settlement threatens £9 million cuts in Bedfordshire's schools, while at the same time forces up the council tax. Does that not mean that people in Bedfordshire, like people in Essex, will be forced to pay more and get less?
Mr. Jones: I must repeat what I said to the hon. Gentleman earlier, because he obviously did not listen the first time. Businesses in this country, whether small or large, have dedicated themselves to becoming more and more efficient year in, year out. I expect Bedfordshire county council, like other county councils and borough councils, to do the same.
Column 991should look at its own efficiency--in particular, at the fact that it is carrying about 16,000 surplus places within its schools?
Mr. Jones: My hon. Friend makes a valid point about the need for local authorities to re-examine continually their spending priorities and their efficiency. I am struck by the fact that Bedfordshire county council, almost alone among county councils, has failed to supply its manpower figures to the Department for the past two years.
Mr. Milburn: Is the Minister aware that competition between areas for single regeneration budget funding has produced a dog eat dog scenario, where there are many more losers than there are winners? What assurances can he give the House that areas such as Darlington, which have so far not qualified for funding for regeneration schemes, will do so in the future?
Sir Paul Beresford: The hon. Gentleman should reflect on the fact that the competition has generated better partnerships and better services. As for Darlington, we must ask the hon. Gentleman to stop whingeing and to get back there to help it put a decent case together, so that it can win next time.
Dr. Twinn: Is my hon. Friend surprised to hear the whingeing about Birmingham and Darlington today? Is he aware that the help that the Government have given towards job creation in north London, the Lea valley, Tottenham, Enfield and Edmonton is greatly appreciated and is already creating new jobs?
Sir Paul Beresford: Yes, I am aware of that. It is also important to stress that urban regeneration means just that. Job creation represents just one part of that regeneration, the rest relates to housing, education and infrastructure. That is the point of offering a urban regeneration package.
14. Mr. Simon Hughes: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment which of his Department's policies are designed specifically to relieve (a) social and (b) economic inequality in urban areas; and how successful they have been.