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House of Commons

Tuesday 27 February 1996

The House met at half-past Two o'clock

PRAYERS

[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

ENVIRONMENT

Landfill Tax

1. Mr. MacShane: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what assessment he has made of the environmental impact of the proposed landfill tax; and if he will make a statement. [15487]

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. John Gummer): The landfill tax is another step towards green taxation. It shifts tax from jobs and resources and has been widely welcomed.

Mr. MacShane: Does the Secretary of State appreciate that the landfill tax at present constituted will penalise the very bodies and companies that are seeking to clear up contaminated land? In my constituency, it will add £20 million to the cost of any efforts made by the local authority to clean contaminated land, and cost hundreds of millions of pounds in the rest of Yorkshire. Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that the tax will do great damage to British Steel, for example, and other companies that want to clear up contaminated land? It is a tax designed to put money into the Treasury. Will the right hon. Gentleman join me and local authorities, as well as responsible companies, in opposition to the bean-counting twerps at the Treasury and devise a real tax that will stop pollution where it begins rather than where it ends?

Mr. Gummer: As the hon. Gentleman knows, the tax does not put money into the Treasury. It is a tax on landfill that will be recycled. The moneys will be paid out to reduce tax on jobs. The hon. Gentleman knows that to be true. He shows by shaking his head that he does not understand the tax. I am surprised, because there is a landfill tax in Switzerland that works extremely well.

Mr. Atkins: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the tax, an environmental initiative for which he and I both worked, is yet a further sign of the Government's commitment to environmental matters? Does he agree also that no excuses can or should be accepted from local authorities for not implementing the landfill tax as it is clear that they have the moneys to do so?

Mr. Gummer: My right hon. Friend will be as sorry as I am that the Labour party has shown once again that, although it talks generally about the environment

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sometimes--not very often--it is not prepared to make the major changes that are necessary when it comes to precise and practical details. As the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) knows, the concerns about how we should deal with landfill, which is the removal of contamination, are the subject of active discussion. Local authorities have already been able to retain in their baselines the moneys that they used to use for waste responsibilities. Those moneys have been transferred to the Environment Agency.

Mr. Eric Clarke: Is the Secretary of State aware that the tax, especially in the form of the £7 levy, will have a detrimental effect on the coal industry, and particularly on coal-fired stations where fly ash is produced by the burning of coal? At present 50 per cent. of fly ash is recycled. The other 50 per cent., especially in Scotland, is put into lagoons and reclaimed lands in the Forth estuary. It is an asset for the community and not detrimental to it. Is the right hon. Gentleman considering imposing the £2 levy rather than the levy of £7?

Mr. Gummer: It is a useful material and we are trying to promote recycling. That is important. If we are to have green taxes, they should be designed to ensure that we recycle rather than continue with landfill, which is one of the least satisfactory uses of the material to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. That is why environmental groups throughout the country have welcomed the tax change. I am sorry that the Labour party does not support it.

Mr. Devlin: Is it not the case that an amendment that links the concerns of the hon. Members for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) and for Midlothian (Mr. Clarke) has been accepted by the Committee that is considering the Finance Bill? Is not the real concern about landfill tax the fly tipping that is engaged in by those who are not prepared to pay for rubbish to be taken to an incinerator or a waste exchange area, which means that material is left on roadsides? Should not we be considering an arrangement for the general public to rid themselves of their rubbish without littering our countryside?

Mr. Gummer: As my hon. Friend says, it is certainly necessary to give the general public more opportunities to be able to get rid of their rubbish. Many local authorities are already doing that. I hope considerably to encourage that approach. Amendments have been accepted by the Committee that is considering the Finance Bill, and they will go some way to meet some of the concerns. As the hon. Member for Rotherham clearly does not understand the way in which the tax will work and fails to appreciate that the Treasury does not gain from it--moneys raised by the tax will be recycled to reduce pressures on jobs--there was no point in supplying him with such details. He has not got that far.

Lappel Bank Case

2. Mr. Morgan: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the Lappel bank case before the European Court of Justice. [15488]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. James Clappison): The United

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Kingdom, with the support of France, has argued its case strongly at the European Court of Justice, and we await the Advocate-General's opinion.

Mr. Morgan: I am grateful for that answer, but does the Minister accept that, if anything, the Lappel bank case teaches us that we have a completely unworkable system of environmental protection, because any Government Department can confer strong environmental protection on bird habitats and then unilaterally withdraw it when it feels like it, and that the only remedy for anyone who wants to contest the withdrawal is to go to the European Court of Justice, which takes ages, costs a fortune and has no powers of injunction to stop work in the interim?

Mr. Clappison: I do not accept the premise of the hon. Gentleman's question. Our system is working perfectly well. In the Lappel bank case, while we await the opinion of the Advocate-General, we are mindful of the importance of the port of Sheerness and its continuing viability. On the environmental consequences, the hon. Gentleman should bear it in mind that Lappel bank is only 1 per cent. of the special area of protection in the Medway, which does not contain rare or endangered species. Our system is working well, and the hon. Gentleman would do well to bear that in mind.

Council House Sales

3. Sir David Knox: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment how many council houses have been sold to sitting tenants in England since May 1979. [15489]

Mr. Gummer: About 1.45 million tenants in England bought their homes between April 1979 and September 1995. At the moment, tenants are still becoming home owners at the rate of 200 a day across Great Britain.

Sir David Knox: How does my right hon. Friend assess the future for potential sales? Will they be direct sales? Does he have any other schemes?

Mr. Gummer: My hon. Friend will agree that the changes that we have made, which give new opportunities to existing tenants in housing association property and thus ensure that future tenants in new homes will have the right to buy, and which have increased the ways in which tenants can be given a chance to buy their own homes, should mean that we shall continue to enable people to buy their own homes. The public will know that none of those 1.45 million families would have been able to buy their own home had the Labour party been in power, because it tried to stop the sales on every possible occasion.

Mr. Olner: Will the Minister consider seriously the Environment Committee report on housing needs and condemn mortgage lenders who are currently red-lining ex-council properties? The asset of those tenants is continually diminishing. Will he consider the matter with the utmost urgency?

Mr. Gummer: My hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration condemned such practices in his speech only last Friday.

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Town and Village Centres

4. Mr. Riddick: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement about the Government's measures to revitalise town and village centres. [15490]

The Minister for Construction, Planning and Energy Efficiency (Mr. Robert B. Jones): Through our planning policies, we provide a framework to maintain and increase their vitality and, through specific measures such as the urban design campaign, city challenge and our proposed rate relief scheme for village shops, support local initiatives that benefit the whole community.

Mr. Riddick: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Is he aware that there is concern among retailers in the towns and villages of my constituency--for example, Holmfirth, Meltham and Slaithwaite--about the difficult trading conditions that they face, which will make it difficult for some of them to survive? I heard only this morning that Lloyds bank plans to close its branch in Marsden. Does he agree that although the Government are not able to force people not to shop elsewhere-- in supermarkets, for example--it is important that they should take steps to ensure the continuing vitality of towns and villages in constituencies such as mine?

Mr. Jones: When judging planning applications for new retail development, we shall ensure that local authorities take into account the impact of any new development on such communities and follow our guidance in terms of a hierarchy of suitable sites. At the end of the day, of course, there is much that traders and the communities in which they live can do to patronise these shops and to ensure that local authorities have a properly thought-out strategy for each town, village and city centre.

Mr. Vaz: The truth is that the Government have done their best to destroy town, city and village centres. May I remind the House that it was this Government and these Ministers who allowed hundreds of out-of-town shopping centres to be built all over the country, and to tear the heart out of our towns and villages? When will the Government be prepared to stop using planning policy to destroy city and town centres and use it productively to do what the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) just asked--promote and protect town and village centres?

Mr. Jones: If the hon. Gentleman took a close interest in such matters, he would know that that is precisely how we use the planning system. Nothing has done more to destroy city centres over the years than Labour councils' imposition of massive taxes, which has caused many businesses to move out.

Mr. Mans: Does my hon. Friend agree that there are two ways in which not to revitalise villages and towns? One is to introduce car parking charges, and the other is to insist that large housing developments take place on the edges of villages and towns, in green belts. Those are both policies of Labour-controlled councils in Lancashire.

Mr. Jones: My hon. Friend has hit two nails firmly on the head. First, car parking facilities for shoppers are a

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key way to ensure the vitality of town centres. Secondly, as my hon. Friend says, the more housing there is in town and village centres, the less pressure there is on the green belt and the more people there are in the towns to patronise shops.


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