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Bob Spink: The hon. Gentleman is making a good point. The Minister compared today's economy with that of 10 years ago. The hon. Gentleman may recall that about 10 years ago, 38 per cent. of pensioners were on means-tested benefitsyet, according to the Library, under this Government the figure will rise to about 57 per cent. by next year. That is poverty under a Labour Government.
Mr. Davey: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the number of pensioners on means-tested benefits in London and the south-east is increasing. However, I have not heard Conservative spokesmen on pensions say that they mean in any way to change the situation. The hon. Gentleman is right to make the criticism, but unfortunately it could be pushed back on to his colleagues.
I want to mention three key issues, none of which were touched on by the Minister or the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman, but all of which are fundamental to a debate on the quality of life in London and the south-east. First there is population growth, secondly, funding for public services and, thirdly, the environmental concerns and constraints that determine whether we can deliver proper quality of life for our citizens.
On population, yesterday the Mayor of London's office published a document called "Planning for London's Growth". It is a serious document, which I recommend to right hon. and hon. Members. It suggests that population growth in London will be faster than was previously forecast. One estimate is that in 15 years' time there will be 700,000 more people living in Greater London, which is equivalent to adding a city the size of Leeds. That is a shocking forecast that we must discuss. In the past two years alone, 190,000 people have moved to or been born in London. Since 1989, the population of London has grown by about 600,000the population of Sheffield.
That is a huge growth in population. It is impossible to debate the quality of life in London and to devise policies to improve it without focusing on that underlying factor. If the population of London is growing by so much, many policies will have to be rethought. To put the growth record in context, in 1945 there were about 8 million people in London. That fell dramatically in the post-war years, so that by 1983 there were about 6.8 million. If those forecasts from the Mayor's office prove right, the population of London will be 8.1 million in 2016. That huge increase presents us with some serious challenges.
Hon. Members may wonder where that increase will come from50 per cent. will be indigenous to Greater London; 25 per cent. will come from British nationals repatriating to Greater London; and the other 25 per cent. will be made up of other European Union citizens moving to the area on work permits and asylum seekers.
Those are the dynamics of London's demography, but the situation is, if anything, slightly worse in the south-east, where the population growth is probably even greater. Using the Government office for the south-east's definition of the region, its population was 8.75 million
I am concerned about some of the ideas coming from the Mayor's office and the Greater London Authority because we have to decide whether to adopt the strategy of predict and provide or that of alert and avoid. Should we say, "These are the forecasts; we can't do anything about it, so we'll try to increase the infrastructure hugely and manage things by building over all the open spaces in London and the south-east"? Or should we say, "Hold onyes, we want growth; it's natural and we can't stop all of it"? However, should we also adopt offsetting, dispersal policies, such as those used after the second world war?
The Mayor has set his sights against dispersal policies and opposes them. He is saying that the huge increase in populationit is of historic proportionsshould be dealt with in the confines of Greater London because he is a committed defender of the green belt. Therefore, land in Greater London has somehow to accommodate that huge population growth, but I do not think that that is possible because it would seriously undermine the quality of life for our citizens in Greater London.
We will not be able to stop that population growthwe have not even managed to deal with the growth that has taken place in recent yearsbut we have to try to manage it and invest in London to try to maintain the quality of life. We have to combine that with dispersal policies, central to which are policies to decentralise political, financial and economic power throughout the regions and nations of our country.
If dispersal and decentralisation policies are taken seriously, as the Government have begun to do with Wales and Scotland, the economic fortunes of the regions can be transformed. Surely it is no mistake that Cardiff and Edinburgh are two boom cities in the regions. They have a focus for government, which then attracts business and the financial sector. So decentralising political and economic power can ensure that we have balanced growth, and I suggest that it will help London and the quality of life of Londoners. Londoners need to work with other regions and nations in the United Kingdom. All that makes perfect sense.
My second point concerns the underlying trends that affect the quality of life in London. I wish to talk for a few moments about public funding. All hon. Members know the history of public finance cuts, whether under the Conservative party or in the first three years of the current Labour Government, and we know the effect of those cuts on our health services, police forces and councils. The question is whether those cuts have been any worse in London and whether the problems in London and the south-east are any worse than those in other parts of the country.
I suggest that the particular problems in London and the south-east need a public finance response. Of course, they primarily involve land and house costs. The huge increase in housing costs has had an effect on vacancy rates and recruitment and retention problems, primarily in our public services. It is no coincidence that the vacancy rate for teachers in London is two and a half times the national average. It would be even greater were it not for the fact that many young teachers come to London, usually from Commonwealth countries, to teach for two
Although the Minister talked about increasing police numbers, he failed to say that the Met is losing 40 experienced officers every month to other forces, which is destabilising it. No wonder street crime has increased. Even if the number of officers increases, the new policemen and policewomen are rookies, straight out of police training college. We are losing the experienced officers who know how to organise and how to catch criminals. Unless the Government deal with retention, they will not tackle street crime. It is crucial that we deal with the problem of retention.
Let us consider just one profession in the health servicenursing. The vacancy rate for nurses in London is 6.5 per cent. compared with a national average of 3.4 per cent. We cannot pretend that we are running sustainable public services with problems of that nature. Some 151 Filipino nurses work in my local hospital in Kingston. They are excellent nurses who have been recruited as part of a good programme that checks their language and nursing skills. However, they are on short-term contracts and can return to Manila and elsewhere in the Philippines after two years. That is not a way to plan and run a service or to ensure that the London health service has a base knowledge. If the Government do not wake up to those problems in public services in London and the south-east, our services will continue to decline.
Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam): My hon. Friend is right to raise that concern about nurses and the need to recruit internationally to plug the gaps in the national health service. Given that London accounts for well over half the spend on agency nurses in this country, does he agree that we are wasting money on paying for agency staff because it would be better spent paying better wages so that we retain nurses permanently on the payroll?
Mr. Davey: My hon. Friend is right. That is why Liberal Democrats in this and the last Parliament have argued for a proper measure of the difference between living costs in London and other regions. That would allow us to work out what the extra allowances should be, to tackle the problems of low pay in London, to have a permanent solution for the problems and to stop chucking money away on agency nurses and teachers.