Previous SectionIndexHome Page

12.32 pm

Mrs. Eileen Gordon (Romford): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker for calling me to make my maiden speech. I had to get here so early this morning that, after yesterday's late night sitting, I had to check that I did not have my fluffy slippers and dressing gown on when I walked into the Chamber. Since being elected, I have been on a steep learning curve, and last night it seemed to be downhill all the way.

I am honoured to be in this place representing the people of Romford in the London borough of Havering. The stereotype of Essex man and woman--of bimbo and himbo--with white stilettos and white socks has become a joke. Romford is like anywhere else: a mixture of people, all trying to do the best for themselves and their families.

I have spent most of my life in Romford, so the House must excuse me if my speech is a little parochial. Romford is an old market town; in fact, this year the market celebrates its 750th anniversary. One of the largest open air markets in the country and its traders play an integral part in the town's life and economy. The town is at the crossroads of London and Essex: from the 18th-century coaches that used to pass through, to the commuter trains of today, there has always been a bustle and movement of people through the town.

Mention of coaches and coaching inns reminds me of our famous Romford brewery which, until 1992, filled Romford with the delicious smell of brewing. The manufacturing side of that industry closed that year and many skilled workers lost their jobs. I and many others still miss that distinctive smell wafting over the town, and those people certainly miss their jobs. The distribution side of the industry stayed, but that, too, is now threatened by a proposed merger, which my constituents who work in the brewery tell me they do not want. I hope that the

6 Jun 1997 : Column 739

merger--which is now before the Monopolies and Mergers Commission--will be closely examined by the Government, because my town cannot afford to lose hundreds of highly skilled jobs and suffer the knock-on effects on the town's economy.

As I said, Romford is at the crossroads and, after the second world war, many families moved there from the war-torn east end of London. My family were given a house in Harold Hill, which, at that time, was in the Romford constituency. The three-bedroom house built by the London county council, which later became the Greater London council, was like utopia to my family, and the move and everything that followed transformed their lives and those of their children, including me.

Today, people still choose to move out of London, and many of them commute to the city each day. They are concerned about job security, housing, transport and health--issues that we covered in our general election pledges, which they endorsed.

I pay tribute to my predecessor, Sir Michael Neubert, who, although never an Essex man, represented Romford for more than 20 years and earned my respect for his opposition to the closure of services at Oldchurch hospital. Just as the market is at the heart of our community, Oldchurch hospital is an integral part of our lives. The Conservative Government's decision to close the accident and emergency department was a bad mistake--I do not want to be too controversial, but it was one of many.

I am pleased that Oldchurch hospital will be included in the review of London health services being carried out by the Labour Government and I am sure that, this time, the views of local people and their representatives will be listened to. Issues such as the future of our hospital services have to be examined Londonwide, because each hospital affects others in the area and elsewhere across London. That is why I welcome today's debate on the governance of London.

The first thing I put on my desk at the House of Commons was a photograph of my children at a protest against the abolition of the GLC. Although we admit that the GLC's structure had faults, we all know in our hearts that it was abolished not because it was a failure, but because it was successful. It provided valuable services for Londoners and promoted London-wide policies such as the "Fares Fair" transport system, which I thought was absolutely brilliant and which my constituents still talk about. That is precisely what we need in London--strategic planning.

We have only to look around us to know how attractive London is and how many tourists come here. We live in a beautiful capital city, full of history and pageant, but it is not a museum--real people live here and many have problems. It is not a theme park, to be closed at night, and nor is it a group of walled boroughs, each completely isolated and looking after its own interests. Although we have the village philosophy, we need to co-operate. What happens to London in business and transport affects my constituents and everyone throughout London.

I love London, as do my constituents. I would not choose to live anywhere else, but London deserves better than it has had over the past 11 years. We shall not impose a strategic body on Londoners; we shall hold a

6 Jun 1997 : Column 740

referendum to ask them whether they want one. I am confident that they will give a resounding yes to a strategic London authority, bringing about regeneration and cross-London planning on transport, environment and many other issues.

Just as Romford is a crossroads, I believe that London is at the crossroads of making a great decision to look to a better, more exciting future.

12.39 pm

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am delighted to see you in the Chair; thank you for calling me in this important debate.

I join all Members on both sides of the House in congratulating the hon. Member for Romford (Mrs. Gordon) on her maiden speech, which she gave with assurance and panache. I listened with interest as she spoke of the importance of Romford as a market town for more than 750 years. The laws governing Romford market have a reverberating effect even in my constituency, about seven miles away. I listened with interest when she pointed out the importance of the brewing industry in Romford. I was especially pleased that she paid tribute to her predecessor, Sir Michael Neubert, who was widely respected on both sides of the House and served the people of Romford with distinction for 23 years.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke), remarking on the state of the Conservative party in London after 1 May, said that we might approach our responsibilities with decent humility and decent wariness. I can oblige him in response to the first part of that statement because, as the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford)--whom I am glad to see in his new place with his new responsibilities--quite out of order, introduced us visually to his new geopolitical map of London, it came to me vividly that I might be described as the blue pimple on London's head.

In my brief remarks, I shall genuinely seek information on, and question the basis of what I believe to be, the Government's approach to the governance of London and the introduction of a Greater London authority.

I have some questions to ask the Under-Secretary of State and his ministerial colleagues. I understood from a speech in the debate on the Loyal Address a couple of weeks or so ago that the Government originally intended to publish a White Paper on London later in the summer--I believe that that was the phrase. We now hear that a Green Paper will be published next month. I have no quarrel with that; in fact, it is preferable not to dispense with a Green Paper.

However, I wonder whether, on such an important issue, a three-month consultation period is sufficient, especially as it will embrace what is euphemistically described as the holiday period--in the case of Parliament, the summer recess. More important, the Under-Secretary will need more than three months before he publishes the White Paper, because he will want to consider points that have been made, so I would not expect that White Paper to be published before December at the earliest, and probably early 1998.

Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) and others, I sincerely believe that the Bill should be published before a referendum is held,

6 Jun 1997 : Column 741

because I fear that the Government have put the cart before the horse. They are saying that a new government for London is a good thing, but they have not spelt out the implications, one of the most important of which must be the cost to Londoners of doing what the Government seek to do.

A governmental system for London that includes an elected Greater London authority and a separately elected mayor, may be a recipe for division and disappointment. There is such a thing--it is embedded in human nature--as empire building. If I were directly elected as a member of the Greater London authority, I would recognise the importance of that responsibility and would seek to represent my constituents as best I could, just as I do in the House. But if I were elected mayor of Greater London--I assure the House that I am not seeking the job--I would believe that I had the support of the majority of Londoners when representing their interests in a way that might differ from the way in which a member of the GLA might think their interests should be represented. I ask the Minister to consider that carefully.

There is also the matters of costs and how the money is to be raised. Here, I agreed with one of the many points made by my recently reintroduced right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark).

There will also be confusion between the roles of the mayor of Greater London and of the Lord Mayor of London. Perhaps a different title should be given to the newer office holder.

I have considerable concern about the structure, role and responsibilities of the GLA. Of course, it will take strategic decisions, but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal pointed out, such decisions often extend well beyond the boundaries of Greater London. Some tube lines go well outside the area; the Metropolitan police area also goes outside it in at least two places. Such complications can be overcome, but they must be recognised for what they are.

If it is the will of the people of London that the Government bring in a Bill, the Government will have to be very careful when dividing up planning responsibilities. There was great confusion under the old GLC. I declare a possible conflict of interest: I am a non-practising chartered town and country planner. The Minister will recall that, under the old system, certain planning applications, if passed by the London borough--the local planning authority--had to go to the GLC for approval. Many people asked why the GLC had to approve them, given that they had first been approved by the London borough. If, however, the GLC turned down a strategic planning application, the applicants could go to the Secretary of State on appeal.

Is such a division of planning functions necessary, with the introduction of a second tier of government for London? Do the Government intend strategic planning decisions to go directly to the GLA, or will the GLA exercise the role of the Secretary of State in the planning appeals process? If the latter, the transfer of the planning inspectorate to London will involve additional costs. Without a clear demarcation, I foresee problems. That is one of the areas where, whatever the Government decide, the result will be that powers are taken away from the London boroughs. That could happen in other areas--education, for example.

6 Jun 1997 : Column 742

I note that the Government's paper, "A Voice for London", issued in April 1996, said that the Greater London authority would be responsible for identifying educational and training needs across London. Is that not precisely what London boroughs and TECs--training and enterprise councils--are doing in London? If the GLA is to do that, will there not be an unnecessary duplication of bureaucracy? However, the Government may have it in mind to give additional powers to the GLA which will mean taking certain powers away from the London boroughs as the local educational authorities. The issues must be examined closely.

There is to be a new police board. How many people will serve on it? There are 32 London boroughs, plus the City of London, although it has a separate police authority, which may be a point to consider. It is said in the Labour party election manifesto or in "A Voice for London" and probably in both--I hope that they are consistent--that a majority of the members of the new police board would be members of the Greater London authority, but there will be nominees from London boroughs and other organisations. Clearly, that will not include every London borough. Will that be a point of dissension? Careful thought must be given to the matter before the new police board is set up.

I give one other example, on the vexed question of health. To mention health in the London borough of Barnet causes great controversy, about which we may hear if a Labour Member catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

A Labour party paper states that the new Greater London authority will give an annual report on the health of the capital. Surely that can be gleaned already from the annual reports of the local health authorities. Is there any need for an additional bureaucracy to do that? The task can hardly be taken away from the local health authorities, because the information will have to be gleaned from them by the new GLA. Again, there could be confusion or unnecessary bureaucracy, unless--I dare to suggest--the Government have it in mind that the GLA will take certain health powers away from the local health authorities or the NHS trusts. That point must be looked into with great care.

I shall finish by trying to encapsulate the problems that my constituents will face if the proposal proceeds after the referendum. Chipping Barnet, which is a third of the London borough of Barnet, originally used to be in Hertfordshire. I readily acknowledge that the GLC was introduced by a Conservative Government. Although I was not around Chipping Barnet at the time, I am sure that, if there had been a referendum then, 95 per cent. of my constituents living then would have said that they wanted no part of the amorphous new Greater London area. My constituency has been enlarged. Parts of it were in the old Middlesex, but the same situation would have arisen for those constituents.

What price did Barnet pay 30 years ago and more when the GLC was set up? It lost the immediacy and the local flavour of the lowest--I do not mean that in the pejorative sense--level of local government. It lost its urban district council, rural district council and municipal borough. My constituents have to travel further to get decisions made on local matters, such as street lighting and street cleaning.

The plus side was that the London boroughs took on more responsibilities than the old urban district councils, rural district councils and municipal boroughs. For

6 Jun 1997 : Column 743

example, they took on the responsibility of education. Decisions on education had been decided metaphorically at county hall at Hertford. Thereafter, decisions were made at Hendon town hall or, literally, Friern Barnet town hall. Certain important functions were handled, and decisions taken, on a more local level.

Over-arching all that was the Greater London council. When the GLC was first formed, it had specific powers. Those powers grew, but not officially through an Act of Parliament. They intervened, however, more and more in more and more areas. That was the cause of the GLC's unpopularity in my constituency.

I ask the Government to examine carefully the proposed functions and responsibilities that we are considering. I fear that my constituents may get the worst of both worlds. My initial conclusion is that, whatever I may have read about the Government's intentions--I accept, of course, that the Green Paper has not yet been published--there will be more bureaucracy, greater costs and more remote local government.

Who will pay the increased costs? Will the Government meet a higher proportion of the standard spending assessment or will the Bill be met by the council tax payer? If the latter, what part will business play? I do not know whether it is the Government's intention dramatically to alter or abolish the uniform business rate, but, unless they do so, the additional costs will fall on the council tax payer, not on local traders and businesses.

It has been said in the debate that 70 per cent. of businesses in London want a Greater London authority. That enhances my argument that it is superficially popular to have a GLA when my constituents are being offered a menu without being told the cost. I shall do all that I can to influence the Government in a constructive and, as far as possible, non-controversial spirit to publish the Bill before the referendum, even if that means delaying the referendum beyond 7 May 1998. The electors are surely entitled to know exactly what they are voting for rather than merely being asked to vote on trust, with the so-called--but vital--details to be sorted out later.

Next Section

IndexHome Page