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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris): Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot filibuster, or he will be brought to order.

Question deferred, pursuant to paragraph (4) of Standing Order No. 52 (Consideration of Estimates).

9.57 pm

Sitting suspended.

10 pm

On resuming--

It being Ten o'clock, Mr. Deputy Speaker, pursuant to paragraph (5) of Standing Order No. 52 (Consideration of Estimates), put forthwith the deferred Questions on Estimates 1996-97 (Class I, Vote 1, and Class VI, Vote 1).

ESTIMATES, 1996-97

Class I, Vote 1



    That a further, revised sum not exceeding £3,083,844,000 be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund to complete or defray the charges which will come in course of payment during the year ending on 31st March 1997 for expenditure by the Department of the Environment on Housing Revenue Account Subsidy; slum clearance, repairs and other improvements to private housing; payments to the Housing Corporation; the transfer of local authority estates to new landlords; accommodation for the homeless and special needs accommodation; housing management and mobility; rent officers and Rent Assessment Panels; grants for the provision of gypsy sites; grants to home improvement agencies; asylum seekers' special housing grant; for research projects, including European Community programmes; publicity; and for sundry other housing and construction services and projects.

18 Jul 1996 : Column 1395

Mr. Deputy Speaker then put the Question he was directed to put, pursuant to paragraph (1) of Standing Order No. 53 (Questions on voting of Estimates).




    That a Bill be brought in on the foregoing resolutions; And that the Chairman of Ways and Means, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. William Waldegrave, Mr. Michael Jack, Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory and Mrs. Angela Knight do prepare and bring it in.


Mr. Michael Jack accordingly presented a Bill to apply certain sums out of the Consolidated Fund to the service of the years ending on 31st March 1996 and 1997; And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow and to be printed. [Bill 170.]


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris): With permission, I shall put together the motions relating to delegated legislation.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 101 (6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Contracting Out

    That the draft European Parliamentary Constituencies (Scotland) Order 1996, which was laid before this House on 25th June, be approved.

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    Value Added Tax

    That the Value Added Tax (Anti-avoidance (Heating)) Order 1996 (S.I., 1996, No. 1661), dated 26th June 1996, a copy of which was laid before this House on 26th June, be approved.

    Road Traffic

    That the draft Driving Licences (Community Driving Licence) Regulations 1996, which were laid before this House on 1st July, be approved.--[Mr. Burns.]

Question agreed to.


Mr. Deputy Speaker: With permission, I shall put together the motions relating to deregulation.

Motion made, and question put, forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 14A (1) (a) (Consideration of draft deregulation orders),

Question agreed to.


Mr. Deputy Speaker: With permission, I shall put together the motions relating to European Community documents.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 102 (9) (European Standing Committees),

Preliminary Draft Budget for 1997

    That this House takes note of European Community Document No. 6813/96, towards a new maritime strategy, and endorses the Government's approach to it--[Mr. Burns.]

Question agreed to.

18 Jul 1996 : Column 1397

Local Authorities (Government Guidance)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Burns.]

10.3 pm

Sir Irvine Patnick (Sheffield, Hallam): I have enjoyed sitting again on the Front Bench for nearly four hours but I had forgotten how uncomfortable the Benches are. I am grateful for the opportunity to debate Government guidance to local authorities on their responsibilities.

If asked what a local authority does, or should do, most people could reel off a list as long as their arm, and I am no exception. Even with the constraints of time, it will be a long list. If people are asked what a council does not do, the list may be even longer. With the passage of time, many councils have come a long way since they declared themselves nuclear-free zones; at least they have taken down the signs and gone some way towards conformity.

Whenever local authorities are discussed, one inevitably turns to the area that one knows best which, in my case, is Sheffield city council, on which I was privileged to serve as a councillor for more than 20 years. Many former councillors are currently active Members of the House of Commons--one of them was present during the previous debate.

Examining what Sheffield city council does is easy. The annual report of the city council contains a service charter, the introduction of which reminds everyone of the council's statutory performance indicators--providing that Sheffield people know what that means--whether the indicators are complied with and, above all, whom to contact if they are not. The Audit Commission, set up by the Government, publishes comparisons of councils' performances on a range of services that they provide. That helps when comparing one council with another, providing that citizens know where to look for the information.

Sheffield city council is now in partnership with many organisations in the city. The council now co-operates with the Government, rather than conflicts with them, which used to be the way that it operated. I invite the Minister to travel around Hallam with me when he is next on one of his frequent visits to the city. He should not be shocked or alarmed when he sees an invasion of Daleks on traffic islands. Those plastic, crenellated cones are coloured bright yellow and have a black stripe across them, bearing the legend, "Danger--high voltage". They stand motionless and inhabit the places where the traffic bollards used to be--those bollards have not been replaced.

My hon. Friend will also come across no entry street signs at the junctions of roads such as Steel road and Neill road, and Carrington road and Ecclesall road. The signs can hardly be seen as they have never been replaced, repainted or even made to stand upright. My hon. Friend will also see unswept and hazardous pavements. If he has second sight, he will see road signs that are not visible due to overhanging trees. He will see street lights that have not been repaired; yellow paint that is visible on minor roads where potholes have been marked out for some time, but not yet repaired; sporadic grass cutting; and trees that have been chopped down in a rush one weekend at places such as Willow Croft in Fulwood--months later, the site has still not been developed.

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Sheffield city council's annual report lists nine items in the Sheffield charter. Three of them are:


    "Prompt remedial action if services do not come up to the standards we promise".

I contend that those standards have been found wanting. Surely it is the role of any council to ensure that they are met.

The Sheffield newspaper The Star has waged campaigns on unlit traffic islands that are hazardous, potholes in the roads that are dangerous and other road safety aspects. I am grateful to Neil Fieldhouse, the political editor of The Star, for his forbearance.

It is extremely difficult in a short debate not to raise areas of council work that are not within the local government responsibilities of my hon. Friend the Minister, but council responsibilities stem from the cash that is allocated by Government, using various formulae and indicators; each council then determines its own priorities.

Accident prevention features highly in what I deem to be a council's priorities, yet my offers to lobby the relevant Minister are dismissed by the council. I contend that street lighting should work to enable people to see and be seen, pavements should be swept, road signs should be made more visible, street lights and potholes should be repaired and street names should be visible. Road side weeds should be removed, grass verges cut on a regular basis and damaged bollards replaced. Surely the council's role is to ensure that this is done.

This is not a "Let's knock Sheffield" debate. I am proud of the city and do much to ensure that every possible crumb of the Government's financial cake goes to Sheffield. I have joined parliamentary colleagues and members of the city council in lobbying Ministers on many occasions, which has sometimes resulted in success. We have lobbied for things ranging from an inner ring road in Sheffield to a development corporation for the city.

I well remember endeavouring to get a development corporation for Sheffield and the opposition that I encountered in the city to the new, and as far as those people were concerned, alien concept. When I made representations to the late Lord Ridley, who was then Secretary of State for the Environment, he informed me that I required the support of businesses in Sheffield before the matter could be considered. That was readily forthcoming and, now, the lower Don valley has changed greatly from what was at one time a totally run down and derelict area, where confidence had vanished.

From the development corporation's inception, it began assembling sites suitable for business and the new infrastructure that would be required to improve transport access. Sites were compulsorily purchased to bring together the fragmented ownership and the development corporation used its financial resources to decontaminate land and prepare sites for sale. It was not a speedy process and the physical appearance of the valley changed little at first, but as the sites were reclaimed and the infrastructure built, the east end of Sheffield was transformed, like a phoenix rising from the ashes.

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A £33 million dual carriageway link road now runs through the valley, putting all parts of it within easy access of the motorway. Old, dilapidated buildings have been refurbished to a high standard by a programme that targeted prominent routes and areas. The environment has not been neglected either. The River Don and the Sheffield and Tinsley canal, which run the full length of the valley, have been improved and form the basis for a footpath-cycle network and waterside locations. They have been opened up not only for development but for public access. Through the development corporation's efforts, the derelict canal basin has emerged as a model development and leisure complex. It was once called the Canal wharf. It is near the city centre and is now better known as Victoria quays. It has led to a ripple development in the vicinity, which includes the city centre and the valley generally.

Sheffield development corporation's actions have revitalised a dilapidated area of Sheffield and had a knock-on effect in the rest of the city. The impressions that people once had when driving along the Tinsley viaduct passing Sheffield have been greatly improved.

It is obvious to anyone that housing development could, and indeed should, take place in the area. The area was considered at one time as a site for a higher education establishment--a far cry from the old image. Under the chairmanship of Hugh Sykes and chief executive Graham Kendall, the SDC has brought back into use areas that, for decades, were lost to dereliction. In addition, an airport brokered through Government assistance is under construction. We have a revitalised sector of the city where industry is thriving and Sheffield has benefited.

Up to March this year, the SDC has reclaimed 593 acres of land, built 12.7 km of road, secured 3.7 million sq ft of floor space and created nearly 12,750 jobs. It has secured £577 million of private sector investment--all from a Government grant of £93.2 million.

The questions for the Minister are: what will happen when Sheffield development corporation, which I was instrumental in helping to set up, comes to the end of its life, and how will the momentum that it created continue? In March, the Yorkshire and Humberside planning strategy for the next decade was set out in the document, "Regional Planning Guidance for Yorkshire and Humberside", which gives local authorities a broad framework for development and planning.

The document aims to encourage sustainable development in Yorkshire and Humberside, by means of four main objectives--promoting economic prosperity and competitiveness, conserving the environment, helping with urban regeneration and making the best use of available resources. It sets out the idea of economic development by creating a partnership between the public and private sectors and through the use of inward investment.

The document echoes the work of Sheffield development corporation, saying that derelict land should be revitalised and town centres maintained. The question is: should that activity be channelled through local authorities? The document gives priority to regenerating the region's inner cities and former coalfields, and to the co-ordination of planning and transport policies. It also advises that protection should be given to the countryside, and says that future generations should not suffer from today's development.

18 Jul 1996 : Column 1400

The Minister will recollect a previous debate in which I drew to his attention a proposal in Sheffield city council's unitary development plan to reduce the green belt. The Minister's actions persuaded the council to do otherwise. The Government have increased the green belt, and I have nothing but praise for them for introducing the first-ever audit of environmental issues, in the document "This Common Inheritance"--an audit which is updated every year. I commend that document to everyone with an interest not only in the environment but in the well-being of the United Kingdom.

Detailed guidance is given to local authorities on planning matters, but what guidance on other matters is given, for the sake of the well-being of the community? That information does not appear to be as readily available as information on planning. Through a series of questions for written answer, I have endeavoured to bring the issue into the public domain.

Different councils allocate different priorities in the attempt to ensure that grass cutting, the collection of rents, rates and taxes, the reletting of council houses, the recycling of waste and a wide range of other activities are carried out. Yet how does a council tax payer become aware of a local authority's performance indicators, which are provided by the Audit Commission? What efforts have been made to improve councils' quality of complaints procedures, as outlined in chart 18 of the Audit Commission's publication?

Recently, I questioned in the House the setting up of the Yorkshire and Humberside assembly. Suddenly and, it appears, from nowhere, local authorities have found the money to set up that assembly. The councils seem to have found no problems in raising the cash for that purpose, which is a far cry from the story that they usually peddle.

The assembly will meddle in affairs in which councils have no statutory authority. A regional assembly will be another tier of government, like the old South Yorkshire county council, and it is to be imposed on the people. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Kirkhope), for his active support in questioning the setting up of the assembly. Truly, the question that needs to be answered is: is that assembly really needed?

I welcome inward investment, and Sheffield has a labour force second to none. It is located in a wonderful area with many facilities, including land, but when push comes to shove, Government grant helps too. I therefore ask the Minister how people can ensure that the work that councils have powers to do, and which is in accordance with their responsibilities, is done satisfactorily.

If residents cannot do that, how can they complain? The information should be readily available, and provided in a simple manner. Perhaps in this short debate the Minister will spell out in plain language Government guidance for local authorities on what their responsibilities are, and who is to oversee them.

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