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Local Authority Revenue

5. Mr. Pike: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what recent discussions he has had with local authority leaders on the level of Government contribution to overall local authority revenue. [15491]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir Paul Beresford): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State met leaders of the local authority associations on 15 January and on 6 February to discuss a range of issues affecting local government, including the financing of local authority revenue expenditure.

Mr. Pike: Has not Lancashire's education grant been increased by only 1.4 per cent.? That increase is smaller than the increases in standard spending assessment and inflation. Such small increases mean that counties such as Lancashire must either cut other services or increase the council tax.

Sir Paul Beresford: Perhaps I can help the hon. Gentleman. Lancashire's SSA has risen by 3.1 per cent., its SSA per head has risen by 2.8 per cent. and its budget has risen by 3.2 per cent. If Labour councillors cannot manage, perhaps they should resign.

Sir Irvine Patnick: When will my hon. Friend take action--

Mr. Pike: On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I give notice that I wish to raise the issue to which I have referred on a motion for the Adjournment.

Home Ownership

6. Mrs. Ann Winterton: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on his policies for the promotion of home ownership. [15492]

The Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration (Mr. David Curry): The Government are fully committed to promoting the continued growth of sustainable home ownership, both by prudent management of the economy and through specific policies to help people to become home owners.

Mrs. Winterton: Given that home ownership is a core value of Conservatism, does my hon. Friend agree that there has never been a better time at which to buy a house, that interest rates are at an historic low and that it makes good sense to invest in new property? Will he ensure that we include in the next Budget, and in the next general election manifesto, firm policy plans to enable more people to buy their homes? Home ownership is very popular, and most families aspire to it.

Mr. Curry: My hon. Friend is right. The relationship between interest rates, earnings and prices is now such

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that buying a home is virtually the bargain of the century. The market is clearly going to turn around next year. As for specific help for home buyers, my hon. Friend-- who co-chairs the Standing Committee considering the Housing Bill with distinction--will know that the Committee has passed clauses permitting housing association tenants to acquire their properties in some circumstances.

Mr. Sheerman: What are the Government doing about the tens of thousands of people in negative equity or the tens of thousands of people who, spurred on by the Government's propaganda and mishandling of the economy, invested in homes and then lost them again? What will the Government do for them?

Mr. Curry: If the hon. Gentleman, like the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford), had been at the Council for Mortgage Lenders on Friday, he would know that I raised that very issue with some of the lenders. I told them that their policies must be tailored to the new conditions in the economy--in which people have to change jobs and accept other changes--and that we now have sustained low inflation, rather than the rapid inflation to which people became accustomed. The Government's action is concerned with sustaining a very low rate of inflation, decreasing interest rates and, therefore, decreasing mortgage rates, which helps not only people who aspire to own a home but those who have difficulty sustaining the purchase of their home. We will be continuing with that action.

Mr. Marland: Will my hon. Friend reassure the House and all current council house dwellers that, should they wish to purchase their council houses after the next election, under a Conservative Government they will be able to do so? Will he contrast that with the wishy-washy commitments, if any, that we get from Labour Members and the fact that Labour councillors have for a very long time tried to deny council house tenants the right to buy their homes?

Mr. Curry: We shall not merely maintain the policy that allows local authority tenants to buy their homes; we are making it possible for housing association tenants to buy their homes on equivalent terms. That will be an opportunity that has been closed to many, and it is part of the extension of sustainable home ownership to which we are thoroughly committed.

Mr. Raynsford: Why does the Minister not admit that, far from helping home owners, the Government have created the worst crisis for home owners in this country's history? Millions of home owners are caught in negative equity, 1,000 home owners lose their homes through repossession every week and the market is suffering from a deep crisis of confidence. The Minister knows that the Government's policies have been a disaster for home owners. They have betrayed home owners, and home owners are rightly looking to Labour for a solution.

Mr. Curry: There is nothing like the Labour party when it comes to wallowing in other people's problems. The fact is that we still have more people moving into home ownership than are facing difficulties from home ownership. We intend to extend home ownership, which

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is part of our policy of achieving a sensible housing market in which home ownership, private renting and social housing have their proper roles to play. The Government have introduced that creative scheme. The Opposition have no creative policies except for the use of capital receipts, but they will not even tell us during what period they will be spent. I hope that the Leader of the Opposition will spell at least that out next week.

Urban Design

7. Mr. Day: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what plans he has to encourage higher standards of urban design in respect of new developments in towns and villages. [15493]

Mr. Gummer: I take every opportunity to raise the profile of urban design and the quality initiative that the document "Quality in Town and Country" spearheaded. I also launched a national urban design campaign last summer.

Mr. Day: Is my right hon. Friend aware that we have lost much green open space in my constituency of Cheadle, particularly to large out-of-town retail developments? If planning procedures allow such developments--against my will and that of a large percentage of my electorate--would it not be better if they were made more suitable for green, leafy areas, rather than, as at present, the American mid-west?

Mr. Gummer: My hon. Friend will know that I have sought to insist that the town centre is the most natural place for retail development and to see that the quality of those developments should, like the quality of all developments, improve considerably. I am pleased to say that, although my hon. Friend has in his area the problem he described, he will note in the Henry Square Revival in Ashton-under-Lyne and the Gorse Stacks in Chester real examples of better design because of the Government's encouragement. We shall continue with that.

Mr. Clapham: When promoting urban design, will the Secretary of State consider no build being extended under high-voltage power lines, as happens in many villages in my constituency? Bearing in mind the link between ill health and the electromagnetic field under power lines, will the Minister consider--[Hon. Members: "The microphone is not on."]

Madam Speaker: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has been interrupted. The technicians are aware that the microphone is not working; I can see them working on the problem.

Mr. Clapham: Bearing in mind the link between ill health and the electromagnetic field under power lines, will the Minister consider amending planning law to ensure avenues of no build under such lines?

Mr. Gummer: No, I have no intention of doing that. I have considered the evidence carefully and believe that the hon. Gentleman is asserting as fact a very questionable argument.

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Water Prices

8. Sir Teddy Taylor: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment by what percentage the price of water for domestic consumers has changed over the past five years; and what assessment he has made of the reasons for the change. [15494]

Mr. Clappison: Average domestic water and sewerage charges have increased by 35 per cent., including inflation, over the past five years. Charges have risen to help pay for the massive modernisation programme which has been necessary to raise water quality and environmental standards.

Sir Teddy Taylor: As the sharp rise in the price of water is so different from the sharp fall in the price of the services provided by almost every other privatised industry--I am thinking of electricity, tele- communications and gas--would not it be helpful to give the public a full explanation of that difference? Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the basic reasons was the previous starvation of investment whereas the industry now has to bear the cost of implementing Euro-directives and the massive cost of removing agricultural chemicals and pesticides from water supplies?

Mr. Clappison: My hon. Friend knows that the Government are committed to improving agricultural practices. On the wider issue, however, he is right to make the connection between the need for investment now and the lack of investment in the past. He will be aware that, since privatisation, investment has run at roughly twice the previous level. It is certainly much higher than it was before 1979. Higher investment is necessary to pay for the environmental standards that we wish to implement.

Mrs. Helen Jackson: Does the Minister agree that the problem of the 35 per cent. increase is only compounded by the even greater increase in profits over the past five years? Is not it disgraceful that, for the past two years, investment in the industry has actually fallen, which gives the lie to his claims?

Mr. Clappison: The hon. Lady fails to see the link between profit and investment. Profit is very important for investment, and we want investment to continue so as to provide higher environmental standards, cleaner rivers, beaches and bathing water and high-quality drinking water. The hon. Lady's party would take us back to the bad old days of the Labour Administration when the industry was starved of investment.

Sir Sydney Chapman: I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) that the major reason for the increase in water charges is the fact that we have to meet EU directives. Will my hon. Friend confirm that half those directives have nothing to do with health and safety but are concerned only with matters of taste and colour? Even at this late stage in the huge investment programme, will my hon. Friend try to persuade his European ministerial colleagues to get rid of such unnecessary EU directives?

Mr. Clappison: I am sure that my hon. Friend will appreciate that the Government are committed to high

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standards of drinking water. Higher environmental standards across the board are the essence of the way in which we impose and interpret those directives. I know that my hon. Friend would wish his constituents in Barnet to have good-quality drinking water standards, just as we would for our constituents.

Mr. Matthew Taylor: The Minister will appreciate that the figures he cites disguise a wide variation in water prices across the country. Will he explain to those whose bills have doubled, or more, in the south-west--and other areas that have been hit hard--why the Government believe it is appropriate to continue to subsidise the already lower prices in Scotland but refuse any help to those who have been hit in high-paying areas such as the south-west?

Mr. Clappison: The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the particular need for investment in the south-west and the problems along the coast there. He would do well to bear in mind the need for investment arising from the lack of investment in the past. I am sure that he will join me in welcoming the improved environmental standards in the south-west. The hon. Gentleman should study the report issued by the Centre for the Study of Regulated Industries, which shows that the rise in prices in Scotland has been very nearly the same as that in this country.

Mrs. Peacock: I note what my hon. Friend says about investment in the water industry. He knows very well the amount that Yorkshire Water has invested. What does he say, however, to consumers in Yorkshire, given that Yorkshire Water has recently announced a 5.5 per cent. increase in its charges--more than twice the rate of inflation--and said in the same breath that it is not sure that it will be able to supply water to its customers due to possible shortages?

Mr. Clappison: My hon. Friend will know that, under the regulator's price structure, prices will be stabilised in Yorkshire and will be much lower in future. Particular problems in Yorkshire have been caused by exceptionally dry weather--[Interruption.] The Government are anxious to ensure that no water supply problems are caused by dry conditions in Yorkshire. Opposition Members who are shouting would do well to remember that, during the drought in Yorkshire last summer, no standpipes were used and there were no rota cuts, unlike what happened in 1976, when there was also dry weather.

Mr. Dobson: Will the Minister confirm that the average price rise hides the fact that, while water prices generally have been pushed up by 80 per cent., charges for metered supplies have come down by 2 per cent. in real terms? First, is not such discrimination against one group of customers unlawful and, secondly, is not it part of the Government's general secret agenda to force or bribe everybody to go on to meters?

Mr. Clappison: The hon. Gentleman is comprehensively wrong. It is a shame that he chooses to rubbish water metering, when it has important benefits for water conservation and the environment. The longer the hon. Gentleman rubbishes water metering, the more he shows that he is not concerned about the environment,

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has given no thought to the environmental consequences of water policy and has nothing constructive to say on the subject.

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