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5.13 pm

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside): I am pleased to follow the assured, pithy speech made by the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders), although I would take issue with some of his criticisms.

I thought that the Minister of State's speech, opening the debate, was a milestone in local government history and a significant advance in the history of the Labour party in Parliament. On the other hand, the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), a former Minister of great technical expertise, was untypically ungenerous and pernickety in his response. I regretted that.

There is nothing quite like a general election campaign to show candidates the true state of local housing stock, which is why I wanted to speak today. The Bill is certainly welcome. It is a practical measure which will improve the lives of hundreds of my poorest, least fortunate, most hard-pressed constituents. Without a shadow of doubt, local government throughout Wales will welcome the Bill.

The Principality is the seat of some of the most difficult housing problems in the UK, but I am certain that the Bill will help. When houses have been modernised by my hard-working local council, by installing central heating, double-glazed units and new doors, residents have told me of their delight. I have concluded that the quality of their lives has been greatly enhanced.

Once houses are restored, they become healthy to live in, free of damp and worthy of the description "civilised housing". In the townships of Shotton, Saltney, Buckley, Hope, Connah's Quay and Aston, the plea is still: repair and modernise; give us central heating, replace the windows, change the doors. These are not outrageous requests at the end of the 20th century. Modernisation will help young children with asthma who live in sub-standard homes. It will also help the arthritic elderly.

Modernisation will certainly create jobs, in my constituency and throughout Wales, for painters and decorators, joiners, glaziers, brickies, plumbers and local hauliers. Even on disputed figures, at least 1,600 people remain unemployed in the Deeside area. I believe that the Bill will help the unemployed into training and genuine work--work that will benefit their fellow citizens.

My council, Flintshire, estimates that it needs about £16 million over the next five years for capital expenditure on housing. In the first year of the new

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Flintshire council, following the reorganisation of local government, its credit approval was cut to £1.7 million; the year after that it was cut to £1.4 million. That amounted to an horrendous cut of 45 per cent. over two years--very debilitating for the whole area.

My council has 6,900 families on the housing waiting list. Usually, the families are young, extremely stressed and poverty stricken and, as I have discovered from my surgeries, they are increasingly desperate. All they ask for is a home as a basic foundation for their family. I should like to think that this measure will speed the delivery of something that will enhance my constituents' lives. This Government, thank heaven, are prepared to help some of the more unfortunate constituents in my area.

The current new affordable rented housing programme in Flintshire is laughable. It is a monument to previous Administrations. As of today, just 30 starts by several housing associations are under way. That will not meet the problem that confronts us.

The former Alyn and Deeside district council, which is now subsumed in the new Flintshire county council, passed about £7 million of sales receipts into the treasury of the new Flintshire county council. I make this request of Ministers: I want those receipts recycled now into estates on Deeside. That is the principal plea of my local councillors and it is what residents of those estates seek.

There are in my constituency many large, post-war, aging council estates in urgent need of modernisation. They need repairs and an urgent boost in their environmental quality. Some of our largest decaying estates are frequently the seat of our gravest social problems. Unemployment and decay appear to spawn crime, vandalism, drug abuse and frequent break-ins. The Bill, by enhancing the quality of life on those aging estates, may well help us to tackle the alarming and emerging problems of what is now called the British underclass. I hope that it does.

The Bill is a response to a manifesto commitment worth keeping. It was an important humanitarian promise, which I believe is well kept as it is encompassed in the Bill. The Bill creates jobs. It will improve public health. It will create happiness and satisfaction. It is a simple, eminently justifiable measure. It represents social justice. I support it whole-heartedly and believe that it will probably be the most practical, worthwhile measure that the Government will enact.

5.21 pm

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): The financial basis of the Bill reminds me of Bills concerning other aspects of proposed Government expenditure that we have debated during the past two or three weeks. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) suggested, the Bill before us is built on sand.

Opposition Members have concluded that, in opposition, the Labour party had not properly worked out its plans for public expenditure. It claimed that in many areas of government, including housing, the Conservative Government had failed to put in sufficient money and resources. It then told the electorate that, in government, it would follow the public expenditure plans of the previous Conservative Government, and certainly their departmental plans for the next two years.

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I suspect that when the Labour Government and the Chancellor of the Exchequer achieved office, they recognised that they could not square the circle, so they were forced to seek expedients to try to match the amount of public expenditure that they require.

Detail on the financial basis of the Bill as outlined by the Minister of State is wanting. Those of us who have sat through consideration of other Bills introduced by the Government have found the same lack of detail in explanation of the finances. We must bear in mind the statement made last week by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. He said that there would be a fundamental review of public expenditure. In my opinion, that is the key to examining the Bill and others that have been, or will be, presented to the House.

The Government cannot deliver on their twin promise of improving public services and meeting the public expenditure limits set by the Conservative Government.

I suspect that when the Deputy Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions--and everything else--spoke to the Chancellor, he was told that the original proposal to transfer receipts from council house sales to local authorities would ultimately be calculated as public expenditure, so he had to come up with a smokescreen to mask that shortfall.

Opposition Members realise that in many constituencies there are severe problems in housing and social conditions, but in many other places such problems are not the consequence of central Government mismanagement or failure to allocate resources. In many areas--we have seen it before--problems are a direct consequence of mismanagement by local authorities, the overwhelming majority of which are Labour controlled. They have failed to manage their budgets and have run into debt.

This is not a Local Government Finance (Supplementary Credit Approvals) Bill; it is a bailing out of Labour local authorities Bill. As such, I believe that it will be shown over the next few months to lack the financial basis to produce the results that many Labour Members believe are needed and will come about. They must ask themselves what will happen when the Government are unable to square that circle--when they are unable to produce sufficient resources to cope with the problems that Labour-controlled local authorities have failed to address. The public will take note of the fact that there is a giant credibility gap.

As in the case of previous Bills, the Government need to take the Bill back and work at it again. Ironically, this is another Bill that is being rushed through the House. The only saving grace is that we have not had a review. There is a delightful contradiction: in areas where there is a relatively simple solution, the Government decide to conduct a review; where there is a difficulty, they try to rush legislation through the House without considering the details.

Conservative Members believe that the Bill is fundamentally flawed. We believe that it will not address the problem and that, ultimately, it will increase public expenditure. I suggest to Labour Members that the pay-off to them will be made in local government elections in a year's time, when their promises on this and many other matters will be shown to be flawed.

I oppose the Bill.

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5.27 pm

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): Mr. Deputy Speaker, I thank you for allowing me to make my maiden speech as the first Labour Member of Parliament for Bury, North by contributing to this important debate.

It is a particular pleasure to be able to speak today after having listened to almost 30 maiden speeches during the various stages of the Education (Schools) Bill in the past two weeks, although the benefit obtained by listening to so many excellent speeches by other hon. Members is negated by the diminishing possibility of saying anything remotely original in one's own.

First, I pay tribute to my predecessor, Alistair Burt. Alistair served the people of Bury, North conscientiously for 14 years. He was well known and well regarded by his constituents and well respected as someone who took his responsibilities as a Member of Parliament seriously, performed his duties assiduously and carried out his ministerial responsibilities efficiently and with a degree of compassion that, I suspect, came to be increasingly at odds with the policies of the party that he represented.

Alistair Burt and I were both born and brought up in Bury, North and even attended the same secondary school--a coincidence that took on an ironic significance in the context of last week's debate on the Education (Schools) Bill.

I should also like to pay tribute to another of my predecessors, Frank White, the last Member of Parliament for the previous constituency of Bury and Radcliffe. Before boundary changes altered his seat, Frank served many of my present constituents conscientiously for nine years and I am delighted to say that he is still prominent and influential in public life locally. Both Alistair Burt and Frank White won three successive elections and it would be irresponsible of me not to attempt to continue that important local tradition.

My constituency will be well known to many hon. Members for two things above all: its black puddings and its football team. Just as in recent years the humble Bury black pudding has experienced a metamorphosis from its former status as cheap nutrition for the northern industrial working class to its new status as a delicacy that graces the tables of the most exclusive restaurants, so Bury football club, which was languishing in the lower divisions, this year won the second division championship, thus becoming one of the few football league teams in recent history to gain promotion in two successive seasons. I am sure that all hon. Members would wish to congratulate the players, staff and management of the club on that achievement. Bury football club is a model of what can be achieved by a club in a small town operating on modest budgets with strong community support. Bury still holds the record for the biggest winning margin in any English cup final. Our 6-0 defeat of Derby County in 1903 was a landslide victory of truly new Labour proportions.

However, even Bury North's gastronomic delights and sporting achievements are surpassed by its historic significance. Bury was the home of many notable manufacturers and inventors who drove forward the first industrial revolution, during which the Lancashire cotton industry contributed so much to the wealth and influence of the United Kingdom. Tragically, however, the millions of men and women who spent their lives working the machines in those cotton factories saw little of the wealth and power that they helped to create.

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Bury is also the home of the Lancashire Fusiliers, one of our country's most distinguished old regiments. Its long and proud history is vividly portrayed in the regimental museum in Bury and it was a source of great pride and pleasure to thousands of local people when the Prime Minister, who was then Leader of the Opposition, visited our museum recently to inspect the unique collection of Victoria Crosses awarded to soldiers of the Lancashire Fusiliers for their bravery during the Gallipoli landings.

Bury's most famous son, however, was none other than Sir Robert Peel, who was born in Bury in 1788 and whose statue still dominates one of the main squares in the town centre. Sadly and inexplicably, Sir Robert did not stay long in Bury. Among his many remarkable achievements, Sir Robert Peel will be remembered not only for successfully splitting the Tory party in two and keeping it out of power for a generation, but for his lesser known role as the first British Prime Minister to preside over a Budget--I think that it was the 1846 Budget--that contained a 7d in the pound increase in income tax. For those who believe that history repeats itself--the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce--the parallels between the Conservative party in the mid-1840s and in the mid-1990s are remarkable. I imagine that, today of all days, the choice between tragedy and farce has been particularly poignant for Conservative Members.

Bury, North's indelible place in history was surely secured just four weeks ago in this House. Hon. Members who were listening attentively to the debate on the Second Reading of the Scottish devolution Bill will recall a reference by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) to the "Bury, North question". Bury, North is a long way from West Lothian, and the byzantine subtleties of the Scottish devolution debate do not often provide the main topic of conversation for my constituents; I was therefore somewhat embarrassed that not only did I not know the answer to the Bury, North question but I did not even understand the question itself.

Following that debate and related newspaper articles in The Sunday Times and Scotland on Sunday, everyone must surely now be aware that the Bury, North question--why should English constituencies like Bury contain an average of 68,000 electors when Scottish constituencies contain a mere 55,000--is second only in significance to the West Lothian question. The point that I want to make, however, is that there is another Bury, North question, which is of far greater concern to my constituents. I shall return to it later in my speech.

My constituency is an important industrial and commercial centre to the north of the city of Manchester. It has resisted pressures to become completely absorbed within the Greater Manchester conurbation and retained a remarkable sense of identity and community, which has led to its being described as "an urban village". It is an increasingly popular place to live. My constituents like living in Bury. They tend to live there a long time and often return--as I did--after several years' absence. The pride in coming from Bury, the sense of belonging to a town with a strong identity and the belief in the importance of hard work are important qualities which have helped my constituents make the transition from a traditional Lancashire textile town with a heavy dependence on engineering and paper manufacturing to

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a modern town with a diversified economy which is well placed to take advantage of opportunities created by the white heat of the information technology revolution.

When I was at school in Bury in the late 1950s and the 1960s, every building in the town was black with the soot of factory chimneys. Now, thanks to the leadership provided by a progressive and efficient local authority, Bury's historic buildings have been restored, many of our extensive parks and public open spaces have been improved, our shopping centre has been redeveloped and our market remains one of the busiest in the north-west of England.

Above all, Bury is proud of its education system, the coherence of which is due largely to the positive role played by the local education authority over many years. Opting out has had little impact in Bury, which has been consistently towards the top of the local authority league tables--an achievement which is a tribute to the hard work and dedication of Bury's teachers over many years.

In recent years, all those achievements have been put at risk because the funds--both revenue and capital--available to the local authority for investment have been cut to the bone. This is the real Bury, North question: why is Bury treated so harshly compared with almost every other similar local authority? Why is Bury allowed to spend only £79 per person on capital expenditure when Bolton is allowed to spend £118, Rochdale £120, Trafford £175 and Oldham £219? This year, the local authority has suffered cuts to its revenue budget of 10 per cent. and to its capital budget of 62 per cent. Next year, on current figures, a further cut of 6 per cent. is predicted for the revenue budget.

The draconian cuts to this year's revenue and capital budgets aroused enormous public anger and led to the largest public demonstration the town had ever seen. Almost 15,000 people signed petitions calling on the Government to relax their stringency. The previous Government did not listen. Bury suffers particularly because of the inequitable area cost adjustment element of the revenue support grant and I hope that the new Government will listen carefully to the arguments advanced by the special interest group of metropolitan authorities, whose membership is gradually increasing.

Bury also suffers gross discrimination through the allocation of standard spending assessment. For almost every SSA indicator for our main services, Bury is significantly worse off, compared not only with other districts in Greater Manchester but with the average for all metropolitan authorities. Our total SSA for the major services is 15 per cent. less than the average for metropolitan authorities. Some individual SSAs are as much as 75 per cent. less than the average.

On capital investment, this year we have an annual capital guideline for education of a mere £55,000 against an outstanding capital programme of £4 million. On social services, we have spending powers this year of £18,000 compared with spending needs totalling more than £3 million. On highways, we spend 40 per cent. less per kilometre than the average for other metropolitan districts.

Bury, North has a large quantity of late Victorian terrace houses, most of which are privately owned. A recent private sector housing stock condition survey identified £86 million worth of repairs and improvements. Bury, North has a significant amount of post-war council

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housing. The 1993 stock condition survey identified £36 million of repairs and improvements. In recent years, 2,000 people a year have applied to the local authority for assistance on the ground of homelessness. We have a growing population, rising particularly in the 16 to 25 age group and the 75-plus age group. Those are the people who require special help with housing.

This, again, is the Bury, North question: when the needs of the community for better housing and more low-cost housing are so great, and the people are willing to work hard to rebuild their own communities, why have the Government starved Bury of the capital investment needed to do the job?

I shall finish with a brief anecdote. During the recent general election campaign, I spent a considerable time in the part of Bury where I spent the first eight years of my life. It contains one of the largest and most deprived housing estates in the town. There, one will still find some of the poorest housing in the north of England.

The quality of life for many of my constituents is no better, and in many cases much worse, than it was when I lived there 40 years ago. Youth unemployment is far higher than it was 40 years ago. The number of homeless young people is far higher than it was 40 years ago. The primary school that I attended and which I visited during the election campaign operated on a split site half a mile apart in 1957. It still operates on a split site half a mile apart in 1997, and the quality of its buildings is poorer.

There is a desperate need for investment in housing improvement and for more low-cost housing. The people of East Ward, like so many of my constituents in Bury, North, are prepared to work hard to rebuild their communities. All they want is a better life for their children. We owe it to them to supply the capital investment that they need to start the process of eradicating youth unemployment and youth homelessness, and to enable them to take control of the regeneration of their communities. I am delighted that this Bill makes a small but significant step in that direction.


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