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The Minister for Transport (Mr. John Spellar): The performance of the Metropolitan line is an operational matter for London Underground, but I recognise that it has been declining in recent years. The significant improvements in performance, which we all want for the tube network, can be secured only through stable, long-term investment. That is what the Government's plans for a publicly run, privately built tube will deliver.
Mr. Thomas: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Is he aware of the importance of the Metropolitan line to those living in the west Harrow, north Harrow, Pinner and Rayners Lane parts of my constituency? Although I welcome the news of the announcement which may be made next week, will he ensure that the Met line is targeted for early investment, not least because its rolling stock is the oldest in the network?
Mr. Spellar: I could hardly fail to be aware of the importance of the proposals to my hon. Friend's constituents precisely because he is so assiduous in presenting their case. We recognise that the age of the stock means that newer rolling stock will be required, as is also the case for many of the other lines on the network. That is why we have been exploring these proposals and look forward to the announcement next week.
Mr. Spellar: The programme on all the lines will take effect over a period of time and will include the replacement of signalling where required and, of course, the replacement of rolling stock. There will also be improvements to stations. Detailed proposals will be set out when the announcement about the London Transport decision is made next week. Like the hon. Gentleman, we look forward to the discussion and debate that will follow, but it would be premature to go into detail about the various lines until that announcement has been made.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Ms Sally Keeble): Finance for the provision of new social housing is mainly made to housing associations through the Housing Corporation's approved development programme. Local authorities can also fund provision through their housing capital programme, although we expect that to be done through housing associations as they offer better value for money.
Mr. Simpson: In 1991, under a Conservative Government with no particular love of the public sector, local authorities were still able to build a grand total of 16,550 council houses. In the last complete year for which figures are available, we have allowed councils to build only 361 council houses. Just to complicate matters, 600,000 families found themselves involved in stock transfers because the rules of the housing game have been so stacked as to force local authorities to sell off one set of council tenants to fund the housing improvements of another. Will the Minister and her team look again at the rules in the housing system to ensure that we once again have a Labour Government who are unashamed to be a direct provider and supporter of the delivery of council houses?
Ms Keeble: We have a Labour Government who have as their absolute priority the combating of homelessness and the provision of decent homes for people. Our target is to provide 100,000 new or improved homes. We have a commitment to bring all social housing up to a decent standard. We have a commitment to provide a homelessness directoratethat will come on stream in April. We also have a commitment to provide people with a choice of housing, either from local authority or housing association stock or in various forms of shared ownership.
Ms Keeble: If the hon. Gentleman looks back over the records of applications and acceptances by local authorities for the past decade, he will find that figures for homelessness are now lower than they were a decade ago. He will also find that, because some of those figures are indeed increasing again, we have taken steps to deal with the problems and the figures will improve.
Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): I welcome the extra investment in council housing that the Government have overseen. I welcome, too, the distinct improvements that I have seen in the condition of council housing in my constituency. However, there is some concern in my constituency about the steep increases in council rents that the Liberal Democrat-controlled city council is busy blaming on the Government.
Ms Keeble: If my hon. Friend is talking about rent restructuring, I assure her that the Government have recognised the need to limit rent increases in areas of high value, and we have taken steps to ensure that those rent increases are kept to a minimum, although of course local authorities always have discretion and I appreciate the problems produced by the decisions of the Liberal Democrat council in her area.
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): The Minister makes great play of plans, aspirations and her aims for the future, but does she not understand the basic arithmetic that the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) laid out so well? In the last three years of the Conservative Government, we built 150,600 new dwellings, but altogether in their first Parliament, the Labour Government have built 95,500a decline of 40 per cent. in the amount of social housing provided by the Government. How can she possibly stand at the Dispatch Box and claim to be the friend of homeless people when the fact is that the Government are building far fewer houses?
Ms Keeble: My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) mentioned figures starting in 1991. In 199192, 139,630 homeless families were accepted by local authorities. Last year, when we were supposed to have a record increase in homelessness, that figure stood at 114,350, so the figure is now very much better than it was 10 years ago. In addition, we are now tackling a backlog of poor-standard housing that was a legacy of the Conservative Government's underinvestment.
The stock of council housing in the London borough of Westminster was severely depleted by Shirley Porter's homes for votes scandal. Will my hon. Friend assure me that she will give the council's new leadership all possible support to get back the £27 million owed to the people of Westminster, to be spent on increasing the stock of
Ms Keeble: I completely agree with my hon. Friend's remarks about an apology from the Conservative party, and I pay tribute to those Labour councillors in Westminster who pursued Dame Shirley Porter for many years. My hon. Friend has a particular interest in homelessness in London, so may I take the opportunity to point out that there were 38,220 homeless families in London in 1991, and that that figure is now down to 29,630?
The Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Stephen Byers): Last December's White Paper sets out the Government's agenda for delivering better quality public services and strengthening local leadership. It contains a wide range of proposals to give councils greater freedom to respond to the local needs and aspirations of their communities. It marks a new stage in relations between local and central Government, recognising that we both have a shared interest in delivering high-quality public services.
Mr. O'Brien: Will the Secretary of State confirm that Labour's manifesto stated that the Government would review two-tier authorities in the light of any introduction of regional assemblies? In other words, will Cheshire county council have to be abolished if an unwanted north-west regional assembly is introduced?
Mr. Byers: The Labour manifesto was very clear where we spoke about the need for local people in the regions to decide whether or not they wanted elected regional assemblies. We said that they would be able to do that only if there was a predominantly unitary system because we do not want to have an additional tier of local government, but there is no agenda for the abolition of Cheshire county council, or any county council. I should not pre-empt the White Paper, but nothing will be imposed; it will be for local people in a region to make their own decision. That is what the devolution of power is all about. I know that it is difficult for Conservative Members to understand that, but we on the Labour Benches understand it, and it is what we intend to do.
Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford): When considering the reforms in conjunction with the welcome proposals to deal with the hundreds of thousands of abandoned cars that litter our streets, will my right hon. Friend consider arguing in his discussions with the Treasury that councils that operate blitz schemes, such as
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): Would the Secretary of State be surprised to hear of a council that had undertaken two separate referendums on the new form of executive government in its area and then decided to reject the results of both referendums? Would he find that a little unacceptable in those circumstances?
Mr. Byers: If the hon. Gentleman draws my attention to the specific local council, I shall certainly look into the details. The Government take the view that we want modernisation and changes to take place in the governance of local authorities, but we do not want to impose them. We want to give local people a genuine choice. If local authorities ignore the wish and the will of local people, the Government will take action, but only if there is a clear demonstration that local people want to embrace change.