1. Mr. Jim Cunningham: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment when the precise wording of the new guidance for planning powers relating to out-of-town shopping developments will be published.
Mr. Gummer: It is precisely for that and other reasons that I have brought in the planning guidance that has sought to reinvigorate our city and town centres and to increase the amount of mixed use, so that people can live, work, worship, shop and do many other things together in city centres, instead of relying on the motor car.
Mr. Dowd: Will the Secretary of State confirm that, although the issue tends to concentrate on green-field sites outside relatively provincial towns, inner-urban areas whose developments will be on brown- field sites close to traditional ribbon high streets also present an issue? Will the guidance have anything to say about its impact?
Mr. Gummer: Of course it will be necessary to see that new development enhances the town centre, especially the shopping centre. Each case is different. Most of us, looking at Lewisham, would say that a number of serious development mistakes were made in the past. One has to try to provide the best answers within the framework that we shall lay down.
Mr. Bayley: Does the Minister accept that irreparable and irreversible damage has been done to many town centres by out-of-town developments, and that small businesses in constituencies such as mine have suffered at the expense of large businesses, which have been allowed to develop out of town? Does that not show that the unrestricted free market principles behind out-of-town developments have damaged many small, long- established businesses?
Mr. Gummer: That is a very odd question. The fact is that the centres of our cities have been run down, largely by appalling planning decisions taken by local Labour councils. We know who the people who have destroyed our cities are: Labour councillors who hate small businesses and who, when they controlled the business
Column 884rates, pushed them up so that more and more small businesses were driven to the wall. It is to repair that damage that I am spending a great deal of public money to redevelop our city centres for the benefit of all our people.
Sir Patrick Cormack: I thank my right hon. Friend for what he has done so far, but does he accept that there have been two sad developments in recent years, and not just in Labour areas? One has been the decline of the small specialist shop; the other has been the sucking of life out of the centres of many towns and cities. It is therefore important to try to redress the balance.
Mr. Gummer: I think that the old saying, "Don't use it, lose it," is sensible in respect of shopping. The out-of-town shopping centre has provided an important tradition which many people want. It is a question of striking a balance. It is universally true that, in the city centres that the Labour party has controlled, decline and degradation have been the results of its period of office. Only now are we beginning, with taxpayers' money, to rejuvenate our city centres as I have described.
Mr. Fabricant: Is my right hon. Friend aware that traders in the centre of Lichfield are heartened by today's news that retail sales are at their highest for more than 12 months? Is he further aware that retail sales will be enhanced by the fact that unemployment is the lowest it has been in three years?
Mr. Gummer: I am sure that the increasingly good economic news will be welcomed by those who want to expand their businesses. I want those businesses to expand in the centres of our cities and market towns, so that we can return to the vibrant communities which are so much a mark of Conservative communities and so much abhorred by the Labour party.
Mr. Merchant: Will my right hon. Friend consider in particular the problems caused by traffic and parking where so-called out-of-town development occurs on brown-field sites of the sort mentioned by the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dowd)? His constituents and mine are affected by a major development at Bell green, Lewisham that poses the danger of having such an impact. I compliment the hon. Member for Lewisham, West on the assiduity with which he has pursued the concerns of his constituents and mine. Wider issues are at stake, and perhaps my right hon. Friend will examine them.
Mr. Gummer: I cannot comment on the particular example that my hon. Friend mentioned, but it is essential to ensure that proper provision for cars and parking is made in city centre developments. I want people to be able to choose whether to use a car to shop.
Mr. Vaz: Every time the Secretary of State speaks on this issue in the House, he leaves Government policy in utter confusion. Will the right hon. Gentleman simply tell the House whether he is in favour of out-of-town developments or against them? If he is in favour, how will he halt the decline of our town and city centres? If he is against, how will he ensure proper investment in town centre management? Is this just another two-faced policy from a two-faced Government?
Column 885that he can like both apples and pears but need not say that he dislikes either of them. Out-of-town shopping development has been necessary and needed, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman is saying to his constituents that they may not shop at a superstore. We need to get the balance right. It has moved too much to the out-of-town shopping centre, and I want to move it back to the city centre. Most people, but not the hon. Gentleman, view that as a balanced and sensible policy. The trouble with Labour is that it goes to extremes on everything-- even shopping.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Robert B. Jones): Rateable values in Redbridge and Waltham Forest have increased 28 per cent. and 25 per cent. respectively. Transitional arrangements will restrict the average increase in bills in the next financial year to 7 per cent. in both districts.
Mr. Cohen: The Minister referred to the huge increases in business rateable values in those districts under the current revaluation, whereas those for the rest of London have fallen. Why is my part of east London singled out for unfair treatment? Businesses are already struggling to survive the recession, without having an added unjust burden. Now that the Minister is in control of business rates, why does he not personally intervene to stop my local firms being driven to the wall?
Mr. Jones: As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, valuations are independently made by valuation offices. Of course he is right to say that inner-London rateable values have fallen. They have risen in outer London, but not as much as in Waltham Forest and Redbridge. I strongly suggest that the hon. Gentleman and his constituents contact the local valuation office and provide evidence to challenge any valuation thought to be inaccurate.
Mr. Spring: Does my hon. Friend agree that a nationwide uniform business rate is greatly to the advantage of businesses? Does he recall the days when high business rates imposed by Labour authorities drove firms into bankruptcy and pushed many people out of jobs?
Mr. Jones: My hon. Friend is correct. Nationwide, the Government are taking no more in real terms from businesses than in the previous year, because we are committed to increasing the take only in line with inflation. In the old days, some local authorities used to raid businesses to finance grandiose schemes, which was deplorable. They were, of course, Labour authorities.
Mr. Tony Lloyd: Is it not a fact that businesses increasingly know that it is this loony right Government who are putting up business costs? Is it not true that, in places such as Waltham Forest, Redbridge and the north of England, businesses blame the Government for
Column 886increasing their costs, and that when firms go to the wall the Government are responsible? Why does the Minister not apologise for the nationalisation of the business rate?
Mr. Jones: Fortunately, businesses are a great deal more sensible than the hon. Gentleman and they know full well that what the Government are taking is restricted to level terms finance. We have to face the fact that valuations will vary from area to area. An appeals system is built in so that people can challenge the rateable values that have been attributed to their businesses.
3. Mr. Wareing: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what progress is being made in the utilisation of objective 1 funding on Merseyside; what representations he has received in respect of the participation of local authority and social partners on the committees monitoring the use of objective 1 funds; and if he will make a statement.
The Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration (Mr. David Curry): Last November, approvals in principle for almost800 projects, worth over £175 million, were announced, and 742 schemes have now received formal approval. The local authorities are fully involved in the committees monitoring the use of objective 1 funds, as are a range of other partners.
Mr. Wareing: I notice that the Minister did not answer the part of my question about the representation of social partners in objective 1 funding. I believe that he was told by Mrs. Wulf-Mathies, the Commissioner, as early as last November that social partners should be represented. According to an answer in the European Parliament, representations were made. Is the Minister aware that there is considerable enthusiasm on Merseyside for objective 1 status? People there are keen to get on with the work of the schemes, but they are thwarted by the inadequacy of the secretariat and by bureaucracy on Merseyside. If the Minister does not pull his finger out, Merseyside stands to lose.
Mr. Curry: The Commission has accepted that the social partners are not represented. I accept that we need to get the next round dealt with more quickly; but, with 1,500 applications, there is a great deal of work to be done in the cumbersome scheme that we have to operate.
Mr. Alton: Is the Minister aware that, of the 106 applications in the past 12 months, only six have been agreed and that the process is in danger of silting up? Is there not a good case for appointing one person to take control of objective 1 bids to ensure that the programme works effectively?
Mr. Curry: The machinery is cumbersome, but it is imposed by the objective 1 mechanism which we cannot vary or short circuit. On capital projects, 42 regional fund bids have been approved. The social fund training schemes have been done quite quickly; another 25 should come in the next couple of weeks, and 30 had to go back for further work because they were not put together well
Column 887enough. We hope to bring those forward as soon as we can and we shall try to speed up the processing of the 1995 round bids. However, as I have said, there are 1,500 of them and it is necessarily a difficult process. We shall do our best.
Ms Hodge: At the peak of the last economic boom, there were desperate skill shortages in London, but 200,000 people were registered as unemployed. Does the Minister agree that the single regeneration budget guidelines should be reviewed to give training greater priority so that, if there is another economic boom, the crisis of no jobs will not be replaced by a crisis of no skills?
Sir Paul Beresford: The hon. Lady obviously does not understand that the SRB is a partnership with local authorities and others. [Interruption.] She obviously understands more about urban degeneration than about urban regeneration. When she wore her previous hat, Islington in the 1980s was the seventh worst council of all the English local authorities in the index of local conditions; today it is the fourth worst.
Mrs. Angela Knight: Will my hon. Friend confirm that one of the basic criteria for single generation bids was the creation of jobs? When the second round is considered, will he undertake to give priority to areas such as Erewash which were unsuccessful in the first round?
Sir Paul Beresford: I accept and understand my hon. Friend's concern for her area. I hope that she will help to ensure that its bid is more competitive. Through the process since 1992 or in the pipeline, some 340,000 jobs have been either created or safeguarded.
6. Mr. Clifton-Brown: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what assessment he has made of whether the liabilities for cleaning up contaminated land are too onerous for developers to carry out; and what is the effect on revitalising urban redevelopment.
The Minister for the Environment and Countryside (Mr. Robert Atkins): We have carried out a review of responsibilities for dealing with land contamination in which we consulted with a large number of landowners, developers, investors and others. One of the key objectives was to ensure that land was brought back into beneficial use. Our suitable-for- use policy requires action to clean up land only where contamination poses unacceptable actual or potential threats to health or the environment and where there are appropriate and cost-effective means so to do.
Column 888Therefore, should not the suitable-for-use principle be upheld and the Environment Bill amended to incorporate the common law provisions that have existed in this country for centuries? Should not the conveyancing system be modernised so that it is perfectly clear to all those who might buy potentially contaminated sites what their obligations will be under the new Bill?
Mr. Atkins: My hon. Friend knows a great deal about this subject and I am sure that he will contribute substantially to the discussions on the Bill when it comes to the House from the other place. I assure him that his considerations and those of others with like concerns will be taken into great account when the Bill is discussed.
Mr. Dafis: Is the Minister aware that a Welsh Office report has shown that there are 76 former gasworks sites in Wales where the land is seriously contaminated, including one site in my constituency? The local authority is finding it difficult to obtain any information on that matter. Will the Government agree to an amendment to the Gas Bill to enable information to be made available to the public about the level of contamination on former gas works sites? Could that not be achieved by making it a condition of the licence under the Gas Bill?
Mr. Atkins: There is quite a lot of gas production in Wales, of which the hon. Gentleman is a classic example. It is a matter for the Welsh Office, and I shall ensure that it is made aware of the hon. Gentleman's points.
Ms Ruddock rose --
In his reply, the Minister said that there was a definition of actual harm. He clearly does not know that his colleagues in the other place have already amended the Government's Bill and introduced the qualification "significant". Is it not true that the Government do not know what to do about contaminated land and are having to choose between trying to don the green mantle and obliging their friends in the City?
Mr. Atkins: The trouble with the hon. Lady and the Labour Front Bench on this issue is that they are determined to ensure that industry-- which is part and parcel of the problems of contamination and, equally, will be one of those that have to pay for it--has no part to play in the whole issue. We believe that it does and that balance is essential. When the Bill comes to the House, I am sure that the hon. Lady will be able to examine it in as much detail as she wants--and we will have every answer.
Column 889growing discrepancy between the amount of interest on balances which is assumed in the formula and the actual amount raised?
Mr. Curry: The principle of notionality is at the heart of the system. We are trying to ensure that, over local government as a whole, we reflect what happens across the board. When it comes to individual councils, if we move to a system in which the SSA formula is there simply to reflect the actual spending patterns of councils, we will get some very grave distortions and unfairnesses. I am willing to examine all aspects of the SSA, within reason, and I shall certainly look at the point that the hon. Gentleman raised. However, he will understand that there is a basic principle and that, if we actually started to track individual spending, there would be serious problems in trying to run an objective system.
Mr. Colin Shepherd: Is my hon. Friend aware that the concept of area cost adjustment continues to cause great heartache among shire counties, not least Hereford and Worcester? Will he join the local authority associations in reviewing the methodology so that a more sensible, transparent and apparently fair mechanism can be worked out to solve the problem?
Mr. Curry: We have already discussed with the local authority associations a research programme that would consider whether we could move towards a travel-to-work concept in assessing overall employment costs. I have said to the Association of County Councils that, if it can develop its suggestions into a practical alternative methodology, I shall examine that, along with whatever other ideas come forward to deal with the matter.
Mr. Dobson: Does the Minister accept that, whatever changes he may make in the methodology, if the Government continue to assume, for the purpose of calculations, that Westminster is the fourth most deprived place in Britain, the system will be rigged to the advantage of Westminster? If virtually every other local authority received the same Government support as Westminster, those authorities would not need to collect any council tax; they would go around paying out rebates.
Mr. Curry: It is about time that the hon. Gentleman visited Westminster. [Interruption.] Perhaps he should visit the bits of Westminster that he does not customarily visit. Yesterday, I received a delegation from Brent, Hammersmith and Fulham, and Westminster in relation to their bids for the urban programme to aid severely deprived parts of those boroughs. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that the 100 yards around Palace green represent Westminster, that shows that he knows damn little about local government.
Column 890directly deal with the issue and make recommendations to ensure that land use planning by riparian authorities takes full account of the special character of the river.
Mr. Coombs: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Thames in London is a priceless national asset that is disappointingly and significantly underused? Does he further agree that two of the keys to unlocking that problem are access to the river and attractions beside the river? In the second context, is it not encouraging that Bankside power station is to be taken over by the Tate gallery and that the new Globe theatre is nearing completion?
Mr. Gummer: I agree with my hon. Friend about those last examples. I have considered carefully not only the planning guidance that we should give for the Thames but the nature of the Thames beyond the old Greater London council boundary to the sea. We have some proposals and I hope that he agrees that it is important to have wider public consultation. That is why I recently called in the proposals for a new building on the site near Battersea old church.
Mr. Tony Banks: If we are talking about power stations by the Thames, what about Battersea power station? It is one of most horrific sights in London in terms of the fact that it has been allowed to become derelict. The roof is off and a grave danger exists that the building will collapse; I suspect that that is precisely what the owners want. Will the Secretary of State take urgent action to do something about one of the great landmark buildings of London?
Mr. Gummer: I am not sure that I would go quite as far as the hon. Gentleman in his love of Battersea power station, but I recognise that many people are keen on that building. He will be happy to know that the relatively recent inspection showed that the building's structure is being properly looked after. We need to find a proper use for the building and to have the money to develop it. We would all like to know about it if the hon. Gentleman has a use into which he is prepared to put his money.
Mr. Lidington: Dos my right hon. Friend agree that central Government and local authorities need to treat land use planning and transport planning as two halves of a whole and not as discrete, separate entities if we are to strike the right balance between the interests of those who use cars and those who do not?
Mr. Gummer: That has been particularly shown in the establishment of Government offices which has brought together the Department of the Environment and the Department of Transport, and the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Employment. These matters are now seen in a holistic way, which means that we can produce a much more sensible answer. We need an answer that strikes a balance between the use of motor
Column 891cars and the traffic that such use produces. We do not want to follow the path outlined by the Opposition, who are opposed to the motor car. We need to be a party that makes the motor car our servant, not our master.
10. Mr. Simon Hughes: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what are the Government's plans for reviews of housing policy in the areas of (a) obligations and rights of leaseholders who have acquired their homes under the right-to-buy legislation, (b) local authority housing, (c) housing associations and (d) housing co-operatives.
Mr. Hughes: That is a really helpful answer. If it is the case, will the Minister be a bit more explicit about when he will publish his proposals on the review of the right-to-buy legislation and its working for people who bought their homes from local authorities? A study is being undertaken, but he knows that many people are now trapped--they are unable to sell and unable to move and have extremely high service or capital charges. It is not a dream; it has turned out to be a nightmare. When will the Government introduce proposals to make the right to buy a realistic opportunity for the many who took up the option?
Mr. Curry: There are no plans to revise the right-to-buy legislation. Some 45,000 people a year are still moving from social housing to owner-occupation under the right-to-buy proposals, but I think that the hon. Gentleman was referring more particularly to leaseholders who bought their properties. I recognise that there is a specific problem. Up to now, we have consulted on three elements. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is familiar with the good practice guide, with the rules governing mortgage indemnity offered by local authorities and an exchange sales scheme. We are looking to see whether we need to develop that package to deal with what I accept is a real problem for a number of people, although perhaps not for thousands, as is sometimes claimed. I accept that some people have a real difficulty, and we are anxious to find a way through for them.
Mr. Dunn: When my hon. Friend reviews housing policy, will be consider what steps he can take to bring pressure to bear on the local authorities that have the worst record in terms of rent collection and poor management of housing stock and the largest number of empty units of accommodation, and that are largely Labour-controlled?
Mr. Curry: My hon. Friend is right. The basic management skills-- making sure that one does not have voids and that rent and taxes are collected--are all part of raising legitimate funds to be spent on services, something that local government should never forget is its prime and essential function.
Mr. Raynsford: Why does the Minister not recognise the disastrous impact of current Government policies on almost every aspect of housing? Will he acknowledge that his Department published figures this week showing that the output of new private homes is down by 11 per cent., that new council and housing association starts are down
Column 892by 31 per cent. and that, on current trends, the output of new rented homes this year will be down to 20,000, the worst figures for any year since the end of the second world war? When will the Government recognise that their policies have failed the nation and need to be revised comprehensively?
Mr. Curry: It is just not true. The hon. Gentleman should examine what is happening. He will see, for example, major growth in the role played by housing associations in the past 10 years and that tenure has been diversified away from local authorities, although he wants to lodge all housing construction with the local authorities again. He will also see that there have been major advances with the right to buy, which is creating a new generation of owner-occupiers. The hon. Gentleman will see that housing policy has moved on from the grey monolithic policy which was espoused by the Labour party and to which it would want to return; we now have more diversification, with the private rented sector playing its part. He will find that Conservative housing policies are more effective, more diversified and deliver more choice to people and responsibility than the grey uniformity which is Labour's hallmark.
Mr. A. Cecil Walker: Is the Minister aware that senior citizens in Northern Ireland are not permitted to buy their Housing Executive bungalows, although those bungalows may be in areas of very low demand?
12. Mr. Shersby: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what representations he has received in the last year from (a) hon. Members and (b) other bodies in respect of environmental pollution caused by industrial activities on the Buckinghamshire side of the River Colne at Iver with particular reference to the West Drayton area of the London borough of Hillingdon.
Mr. Atkins: Sixteen letters of objection were received concerning the planning enforcement appeals by A M Talbot Limited relating to the use of land at railway sidings in Thorney Mill road for the recycling of coated roadstone, including letters from my hon. Friend and from my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith).
Mr. Shersby: Will my hon. Friend now go further and ask Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution to examine alleged atmospheric pollution caused by diesel engines on that site, which is greatly distressing my constituents on the West Drayton side of the River Colne?
Mr. Atkins: I know how concerned my hon. Friend and, indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield have been to fight the corner for their constituents. I shall certainly ask Mer Majesty's inspectorate of pollution to have a look at the site and see--without prejudice to the result, of course--what may or may not be done to assist.
Mr. Knapman: That is excellent news. Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that housing is more affordable than it has been for some years, and seek to promote opportunities for tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people to join the property-owning democracy, for their benefit and for ours?
Mr. Gummer: The situation is improving considerably. We are now selling houses under the right-to-buy scheme or similar schemes to the tune of 60,000 per year. That means, of course, that those people are choosing to buy their homes knowing that the Labour party would have stopped them. That is the distinction between the parties.
Mr. Fraser: Will the Secretary of State pay tribute to the splendid way in which housing associations have reinvested the proceeds of houses sold under the right to buy? Why does he not let local authorities do the same?
Mr. Gummer: The right-to-buy system does not work in that way for housing associations--only if they have carried the right to buy on from the local authorities, as the hon. Gentleman no doubt knows on reflection. We allow local authorities to reinvest the money, but we also ask them to pay off the mortgages that they have incurred to build the houses in the first place.
Dr. Twinn: I thank my hon. Friend for his continuing and enthusiastic support for the right to buy. I also thank him for listening to the great concerns of right-to-buy leaseholders in Enfield and Edmonton, who enthusiastically grasped the opportunity to buy, but now find themselves stuck in properties with structural damage which was not disclosed to them when they bought the houses. It is a reasonably small number of people, but they deserve our urgent help. Will the Secretary of State give me an answer?
Mr. Gummer: I praise my hon. Friend for leading the campaign of this relatively small but important group of people who have those particular problems. He knows that I am looking at them very carefully.