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8.23 pm

Mr. David Watts (St. Helens, North): I congratulate the hon. Members who have made their maiden speeches today. I am grateful for the opportunity to make mine in such an important debate.

My interest in local government goes back many years. For the past 16 years, I have served as a member of St. Helens council and have held several positions, including chairman of education and of economic development and, for the past four years, leader of the council. I have also served on the local government consultation finance committee. I therefore have some knowledge and experience of the problems faced by local authorities.

Before I deal with the problems of local government finance, I shall say a few words about my friend and predecessor, John Evans, and my constituency, St. Helens, North. John was first elected to Parliament in 1974 as the Member for Newton, which at the time was one of the largest constituencies in the country. Following the boundary reviews of 1983, the seat disappeared. John was soon selected and elected for the new seat of St. Helens, North, which he held from 1983 to 1997.

John has many friends inside and outside the House. He has built up an excellent reputation as a constituency Member of Parliament and as a fighter for the rights of the people of St. Helens. He will also be remembered by his political colleagues for his work on the national executive of the Labour party, where he helped to rebuild the party and its finances. I know that John takes most pride in his role in leading the national campaign to stop the takeover of Pilkington by BTR. That successful campaign kept the world headquarters and its plants and jobs in St. Helens.

John was a hard-working Member of Parliament, with many achievements to his credit. He was proud to represent St. Helens, North, and the people of St. Helens, North were proud to have him as their Member of Parliament. We were delighted when John's efforts and hard work were recognised and rewarded with his elevation to the other place. I take this opportunity, on behalf of the people of St. Helens, North, to thank John for his 23 years of hard work and to wish him and his wife, Joan, every success in their new roles.

St. Helens is an industrial town, built on the back of the coal, glass and chemical industries. It is famous for its glass technology, its Beecham's powders and, of course, its rugby team. However, the town's industrial past has left it with its share of problems--large areas of derelict land and a low skill base.

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The local authority has been at the forefront of building a partnership between the private and the public sector. That partnership is now regenerating the town. Despite the loss of more than 10,000 jobs in the past 10 years in the coal, glass and chemical industries, new industries and jobs have been created. Recently, it was announced that a multi-million pound indoor ski centre would be built in the Haydock part of my constituency.

The local authority has managed to raise education and training standards above the national average, and has reclaimed half the derelict land to which I referred. That has created an improved environment, new development sites and new jobs for the people of St. Helens. The partnership has achieved that success despite the fact that St. Helens does not receive its fair share of national resources. It has been able to maintain its spending on education and social services only by becoming one of the most efficient and effective local authorities in the country, and by cutting other important council services and increasing council tax above the national average.

I put on record my support for today's announcement of the release of capital receipts held by local authorities. It is a national scandal that local authorities have been forced to hold such capital receipts in their bank accounts and that construction workers have been left on the dole, while many families in towns such as St. Helens are forced to live in substandard housing that is often cold, damp and lacking in basic facilities.

Many communities and local authorities will welcome today's announcement, which will allow councils and the private sector to begin the job of bringing homes up to a modern standard. It will also encourage the recruitment and training of the long-term unemployed, as part of the Government's welfare-to-work scheme.

Hon. Members have said that the Government's proposals go no way towards dealing with the problems that exist in the United Kingdom. I am sure that that is true. My local authority needs more than £100 million to be spent on the modernisation of its pre-war stock, and it has only £12 million in capital receipts. It normally has a national allocation of about £3 million a year to spend on those houses. It does not, therefore, need a genius to see the scale of the problem that exists in my borough.

Today's announcement shows Labour's values and it shows what Labour will do when resources become available. I am sure that the announcement will be welcomed by many people who will enjoy the benefits of today's allocation being released. I am hopeful that not only shall we have a radical review of capital receipts, but we shall have a radical review of SSAs. Such moves will focus attention on the unfairness of the present SSA system.

The Government were right to release some of the capital receipts held by councils. I was pleased to hear of last week's commitment to improve education standards by cutting class sizes. However, if we are serious about giving our communities equal opportunities in terms of receiving good-quality council services, we need to review the SSAs as well as the capital allocations that local authorities receive.

The Government should not be sidetracked by vested interests. Communities such as St. Helens should not have to wait for ever for a fair grant system. St. Helens is aware that the new Government have inherited a financial crisis.

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We are not expecting a larger local government cake, but we are expecting a fair slice of that cake to be given to towns and cities such as St. Helens.

I shall give the House a few examples of how unfair the present system is. St. Helens and Westminster have the same population. St. Helens receives £583 of grant per person, whereas Westminster receives £995 of grant per person. Each Westminster secondary child receives £983 more grant than each St. Helens child receives. Each child at risk receives £19,000 more grant and each elderly person receives £418 more grant. Those figures are in addition to other aspects of the SSA system which are unequally unfair to my constituents. Such figures are staggering and other local authorities--Wigan, Barnsley and Rotherham, to name but a few--face similarly unfair treatment.

St. Helens does not mind receiving less grant than poorer areas, but Westminster has less unemployment, fewer problems of poor health, less poverty and a higher average income. Those facts speak for themselves and demand change. Until such changes are made, the people of St. Helens will continue not to receive their fair share of national resources, they will face further cuts in council services and they will face higher council tax bills than they should. More important, they will not be able to invest in their communities in the way that they wish and as they are entitled to do.

I welcome the Government's commitment to reviewing local government SSAs and I welcome today's announcement. The people of Great Britain have made the right choice in electing a Government who will invest in their future.

8.32 pm

Ms Maria Eagle (Liverpool, Garston): I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to make my maiden speech in this important debate. I am particularly happy to be able to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, North (Mr. Watts) on his first contribution, and I am sure that we shall hear many more contributions from him.

Garston is positioned to the south of most of the well-known Liverpool landmarks, and it is a mixed residential and industrial constituency. It includes some of the docks and the old industrial heartland of the city, much of which was devastated in the early 1980s. Were I to list the factories and employers who have gone from my constituency, it would be a depressingly long list. Liverpool, however, is irrepressible and the people are of the best sort. There are encouraging signs of hope and renewal, especially in the single regeneration budget partnership areas of Speke, Garston and Netherley valley.

Garston's borders are logical on three sides--the River Mersey, the green belt at the southern edge of the city and the M62. The border on the fourth side runs almost down Queens drive, but not quite. My constituency is perhaps the most socially and economically diverse of all the Liverpool seats and as such, it has always been a volatile swing seat. It used to be a true marginal, but it has lately swung strongly to the Labour party. Although I might like to think that that phenomenon coincides precisely with my appearance on the scene, in fact it predates it. Garston's progress to an 18,000-plus Labour majority has been aided enormously by the slow death of the Tory party in Liverpool.

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Whichever of the two--the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) or the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague)--who are vying to be Leader of the Opposition is successful in grabbing that poisoned chalice, he might profitably reflect on how his party can ever again be relevant to the people of my constituency. If he finds an answer, he may well be on the way to renewing his party. As recently as 1979, Garston was held by the Conservative party, but now it is a very distant third.

Garston contains some of the most desirable and expensive housing in Liverpool, in the Woolton and Allerton areas, and has the highest proportion of owner-occupation in the city, but it also has huge peripheral estates in Netherley and Speke and some very poor private terraced property in Garston, some of which is unfit for human habitation. Unemployment is well above the national average and all indices of deprivation show Liverpool to be very poor--one of the poorest regions in the European Union. Large swathes of my constituency suffer the problems associated with unemployment and poor housing--poverty, ill health and crime, to name just three--yet the community spirit is strong.

Throughout the constituency, community-led groups and businesses have sprung up to try to tackle the problems--whether by way of credit unions taking banks to the estates, such as those in Netherley and Speke, long since abandoned by commercial institutions, or by way of employment and regeneration initiatives, the list is almost endless. SMART, ARCH, CREATE, VANT--I could go on for many hours about the good work of those organisations in my constituency, but time is short. Suffice it to say that the capacity of the people of Garston constituency to fight for improvements and life chances for themselves and their families is endless and inspiring.

Despite the efforts being made, however, regeneration is never an easy task. Some basic problems must be tackled by the Government, and I shall address one of the most basic problems in my constituency, which the Government can and should tackle--the provision of adequate housing. First, I want to refer to three of my predecessors--Eddie Loyden, David Alton and Sir Malcolm Thornton. All have represented part of my constituency and all left this House on 20 April or 1 May.

Many hon. Members on both sides will recall Eddie Loyden as a modest man, but a determined fighter for his constituents and for his strongly held socialist beliefs. A seafarer and a docker, his fight on behalf of the families of the victims of the MV Derbyshire typifies him. I know that hon. Members will join me in wishing him a long and active retirement.

David Alton was another respected representative of the Grassendale ward of the Garston constituency. He has now gone to the other place where, I have no doubt, he will continue to speak up for Liverpool.

Sir Malcolm Thornton, who left this House at the behest of his constituents in Crosby rather than of his own volition, was the Member for Garston between 1979 and 1983, so I ask the indulgence of my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Ms Curtis-Thomas) if I make some remarks about him. Our paths crossed in 1992, when I fought Crosby for Labour while Sir Malcolm Thornton fought it for the Conservatives. I came, as I recall, a rather glorious second. I recall seeing Sir Malcolm again on

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2 May 1997 after his shock defeat. He was as courteous and gracious in defeat as he had been in victory five years previously. I am sure that all hon. Members wish him well in his future endeavours, whatever they are. I certainly wish all my predecessors well.

Something else all my predecessors and I share, apart from having had the honour of representing Garston, is that we have all made maiden speeches about housing. That illustrates how, across party and through time, the issue has been so important in Garston. It still is.

Council housing in Liverpool is, in the main, very poor. Of more than 45,500 dwellings, almost 27,000--over half--are structurally substandard or in poor condition. Much of the stock is ill maintained, some of it designated defective under housing defects legislation, and some which is defective has not been designated. The local authority estimates that £700 million is required to bring the stock up to standard. The standard in Liverpool council housing for heating is one gas fire. Damp, disrepair, mould growth and the consequences for the health and well-being of the occupants are endemic throughout the stock. Those consequences include needless and difficult additional burdens for thousands of my constituents who already have many other burdens to bear.

I know about this, not just because 80 per cent. of my constituency case load relates to housing problems, but from my experience before the election as a solicitor in private practice in Liverpool, specialising in housing law. During my time in the House, I want to achieve an improvement in living conditions for those in the poorest housing. Before my election, I used the courts--civil and criminal--to achieve that for those who sought my help. Now I shall use legislation. However improvements are achieved, they are long overdue.

In her maiden speech in 1945, Bessie Braddock--a well-known Liverpool Member of Parliament whom I feel I can cite because she had a connection with Bennett street in Garston--told of families of 10 in her Liverpool, Exchange constituency who were forced to live in overcrowded conditions. At my first constituency surgery after the election, I was consulted by a constituent who complained that she and her family of 10 were overcrowded in their home in Speke, yet she had no immediate prospect of adequate housing. Little seems to have changed in Liverpool.

We must do something about that state of affairs. That is why I welcome and support the Bill. It begins to tackle the housing crisis that has been worsened by the dogma of the Conservative party and bequeathed to the nation. It makes provision for the Secretary of State to take into account capital receipts set aside for debt redemption when issuing supplementary credit approvals. That sounds dry and technical, but it will get some of the £5 billion of locked-up set-aside capital receipts back into the equation for rebuilding and rehabilitating social housing. The measure is long overdue, delayed purely by the previous Government's prejudice against social housing.

In Speke and Garston, in Netherley and Childwall valley, we need repairs and improvements to houses--and soon. I welcome other initiatives that the Government are supporting, such as establishing housing companies and mechanisms to involve tenants. I believe passionately in the strength, sense and ability of ordinary people to shape and transform their lives, given half a chance. I have

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a particular belief in the capacity of Liverpudlians to do that. Their solidarity, community spirit and adaptability are demonstrated every day on the estates to which I have referred. Let us ask them what they want to do, and listen to the answers.

Landlords, even social landlords, do not have a monopoly of wisdom--certainly not in Liverpool. The best of them would not claim to. I hope that, with the backing of the Government, determined to make a difference in Speke and Netherley, things will change. The Bill is a good start. Perhaps we can then ensure that the next hon. Member for Garston--who, I trust, will not come to the House for many a long year--will be able to choose a different subject for his or her maiden speech.

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