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8.42 pm

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me this opportunity to make my maiden speech. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Ms Eagle) on her passion and commitment to her constituents and her obvious commitment to politics. I also commend all the other maiden speeches that we have heard today.

I am indebted to the voters of Norwich, North. The 1992 election was a tense fight, which we narrowly lost by 266 votes. We overturned that safely this time. I am grateful to the voters for their support. Norwich, North comprises the northern reaches of the fine city of Norwich and parts of Broadland--Sprowston, Taverham, Thorpe Marriott, Drayton, Hallesdon, Old Catton and Thorpe St. Andrew. People there face similar problems to those in other parts of the country--problems of access for the disabled, low pensions and housing problems. They have spoken for a change, a secure future and a Labour Government.

Previous tenants of my seat--although the boundaries seem to move wider still and wider--were Labour peers George Wallace and David Ennals. Patrick Thompson held the seat for the Conservatives from 1983. I shall not elaborate on their contributions. Many hon. Members on both sides know about them. They were revered and are still thought of as hard-working Members of Parliament. Patrick Thompson established a base for science and technology here in the Palace of Westminster. Coincidentally, my last job before 1 May was as dean of biological sciences at the University of East Anglia in Norwich.

The people of Norwich have experienced major upsets in recent years: shoe factories have closed; there have been job losses at Her Majesty's Stationery Office; the Nestle chocolate factory closed; a library burnt down; new ventures such as the Playhouse theatre are struggling to survive; and large areas where factories once stood are derelict. Even the Norwich Union, which we hear about in the papers, can no longer offer every school leaver a place, as it once did. The recession came late to Norwich, but it certainly came.

The city has 53,000 houses, 37 per cent. of which are council owned. Some 33 per cent. of those are pre-war, with 1,500 needing immediate modernising. Unless we have more capital investment, not all the pre-war houses will reach modern standards--without outside toilets and with modern kitchens and bathrooms--until 2011. By that time, 6,000 houses built between 1945 and 1964 will need major investment. It is a disgrace that these days we have to give out such facts.

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Heating systems are deteriorating faster than we can replace them and many houses do not have full central heating. For years, we have been able to install central heating only for those with a medical priority or for the elderly. That pattern is repeated across the country. Some 5,000 past-war houses need new windows.

Norwich's housing stock is in better condition than that in many metropolitan areas. That is because of good management by successive Labour councils. I am proud that Norwich city council is still controlled by Labour, with not a Tory councillor. That is a great reflection of the vision and determination of Labour politicians throughout the years. The majority of our tenants want to remain with the council. In contrast, many in the Broadland area find that rising rents are becoming intolerable.

Visiting sophisticates from other parts of England have often come to Norwich, chiding us with comments such as, "They can't read, they can't write, but they can drive tractors." Have those people ever produced a son who can teach the Chancellor of the Exchequer to understand and talk with authority about post-neoclassical endogenous growth theories? Norwich has been running the country.

The future of the outskirts of Norwich depends very much on a large research park, where science and technology will flourish. We are trying to build on a model similar to the research triangle park in North Carolina, where massive private sector investment associates with a dynamic public sector grouping of research establishments. We hope that it will result in a successful scientific and economic venture--a true synergy.

The project is developing with the University of East Anglia, where research gradings have risen since the last research assessment, the John Innes Institute, the Central Science Laboratory, the Institute for Food Research and the British Sugar Laboratory. Some 1,700 researchers and teachers investigate links between diet and cancer, undertake genetic engineering of plants and look into the molecular biology of human diseases. Those institutes are soon to be joined by a new hospital.

I should like serious consideration given to the siting of a food standards agency in such a galaxy of talent. To add to that we have Colman's food factory, famous for its drinks and its mustard. Norwich City football club can now boast Delia Smith on its board. We certainly take our food seriously in Norwich.

I want to pay tribute to the people of Norwich. The work that I have been engaged in for several years has had support from charities for carrying out cancer research, particularly from the Big C Norfolk and Norwich charity and the Bryan Gunn Childhood Leukaemia Appeal. Bryan Gunn is the Norwich City goalkeeper. With the help of people who can ill afford it, those charities have raised money to help our research at the Francesca Gunn laboratory, where we are looking for new diagnostic techniques for cancer detection and for new cures. It says a lot for people that, when times are hard, they are prepared to give to charity and help the development of new cures. We owe a great deal to people who live in poor housing, but are prepared to help others.

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I conclude with a few comments about general housing needs in Norwich. Although they are not so different from those in other parts of the country, I wish to raise one or two specific points.

Before the right to buy was introduced, Norwich city council had 26,000 houses. It now has 19,500. We urgently need to tackle overcrowding, problems with neighbours and the long waiting lists for transfers. Those complaints are made time and again in my surgeries. Requirements for the elderly, special needs housing and homelessness have also been mentioned today.

Norwich has £6.5 million in capital receipts. If £2 million of that were released, we could increase modernisations and carry out external repairs, re-roofing, repairs to lifts and improvements in security. That would make a start, but we need a rolling programme for at least 10 years. Tenants would certainly have better heating and lower heating bills.

If another £1.2 million were released, we could start building in association with housing associations and private builders. It is all rather exciting. It starts the ball rolling and shows the direction in which we are moving. Constituents in Norwich would like that to happen and that is why they support the Bill. It offers a pathway for change and it leaves me rather excited.

8.50 pm

Mr. Anthony Colman (Putney): I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in the debate. I also congratulate the hon. Members who have made their maiden speeches today, including my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Garston (Ms Eagle), for Mitcham and Morden (Ms McDonagh) and for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson). I shall return to the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden in a moment.

I particularly commend the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North. With a name such as mine, I am obviously pleased by the fact that he mentioned mustard and the money that was raised by what people left at the side of their plates. I also endorse his support for Norwich City.

As a Norfolk boy, it is nice to see Norwich once again returning Labour Members. Norfolk, North, where I grew up, always returned Labour Members in the 1940s and 1950s, and I look forward to that happening again at the next election.

Turning to the Bill, I speak from a background of two different boroughs--Merton and Wandsworth. Until very recently, I was proud to serve as leader of Merton council for some six years and I am pleased to represent in the House the residents of Putney in the borough of Wandsworth.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden was perhaps unable to refer to her great success as chair of the housing committee of the London borough of Merton. During her years in that post, the Labour group, working with local housing associations, was able to build more than 3,000 units of social housing. Obviously, during that time we were blocked from using the capital receipts, and much more needs to be done.

In Merton, particularly in Mitcham and Morden, there is great housing need. The Bill will enable the people of Mitcham and Morden as well as those in Wimbledon to benefit from the same standard of housing as 3,000 of them have received under a Labour council since 1990.

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In contrast, the London borough of Wandsworth has a housing waiting list of some 7,000, although its capital receipts amount to millions of pounds. I say that because I am unable to trace from either the chief executive or the director of finance the exact sum. They seem to be a little reticent about that. I know that some of those receipts have been used to repay debts, but money is still available. That money should be spent on addressing the great social housing needs of the borough and the equally great need for repairs.

Many of us know of the tremendous campaign in Wandsworth to sell council houses. To those who wish to buy their council houses I say God bless them. If people wish to do so, we should let them get on with it. However, I draw the House's attention to my constituent who received a 25-year mortgage at the age of 78. Now, at the age of 86, she faces huge bills, large service charges and large capital charges amounting to more than £10,000. That is not what was meant by the right to buy. Councils encouraging people in that respect should draw a line somewhere. The block where my constituent lives needs repairs, including a new roof and new windows. It should be one of the first calls on the capital receipts that will be released through the Bill.

At my surgeries, I meet many leaseholders who are concerned about what they consider to be the mis-selling of their properties to them. I am not suggesting that Wandsworth has done anything illegal. The council stayed on the right side of the law, as was established by the Audit Commission before Christmas, so I am not making any allegations of that nature. However, many unhappy leaseholders and tenants in Wandsworth are looking to the Bill as a way by which the money that has been put into council coffers can be released to pay for repairs and new social housing.

Next May, the residents of Wandsworth will have the chance to decide the political balance of their local authority. Obviously, I hope that they will take account of the Bill and realise the difference between Labour and the Conservative policies and attitudes towards repairs and new social housing.

Merton and Wandsworth are very different councils. One is Labour and one is Conservative. On 1 May, the British people decided which way they wished to go and the Bill is an important part of their decision.

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