Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Alun Michael: The hon. Lady makes an important point. Does she agree that the Government were right to make the elected requirement a key element of the quality parish councils, and encourage parish councils to make use of the powers that the Bill will provide in the context of becoming genuine, well-run and elected councils?

Sue Doughty: I welcome the Minister's comments. I hope that we will hear more in Committee about how the process will work.

We have a problem with Traveller encroachment. Somehow, it seems that farmland is, again, no longer considered important. Those of us who have farms in our constituencies constantly hear of the devastation that may be caused after Travellers have illegally occupied land and left it in a mess, with asphalt laid and other problems. These are issues that we need to consider in Committee. It is clear that they need sorting out. I have no problems with prosecutions where people fly-tip. If there are powers to take away vehicles, and those vehicles are used to tow Travellers' caravans, there needs to be clarity, because there may be a human rights issue. I hope that the Government will be able to provide clarification.

I agree with the hon. Members for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) and for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), who mentioned the tragic incident involving a child in a car in the countryside. We must deal with abandoned cars in the countryside as well as in the streets. Abandoned cars are a blight on the countryside, cause pollution and, as we have heard, are a hazard.

There is also the problem of houses in multiple occupation where there are broken-down cars awaiting repairs. The Government are right to draw attention to the problem. With increased brownfield development and infilling in towns leading to reductions in parking places and several people sharing a house, there is often not just one householder. If two cars break down that belong to two owners in one house, how will the Government deal with that? There is less off-road parking for private vehicles than there used to be, particularly in urban areas. There is a balance to be struck between the people who live in an area, who have a reasonable right to maintain their cars on the street if there is nowhere else available, and the people who live around them. More clarity is required.

Mr. Patrick Hall (Bedford) (Lab): I certainly agree with the hon. Lady about people who may need to maintain their car on the street, but would she not draw a distinction between an individual maintaining one car and someone running a business in the street?

Sue Doughty: The hon. Gentleman is right. We do not want people to repair cars on the street for profit and there is nothing in the relevant clause that we dispute.
10 Jan 2005 : Column 66

There are gaps in the Bill, including, for example, the import and disposal of nuclear waste. Liberal Democrats, including my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), regularly urge the Government to address the problem of nuclear waste, and it is time that they did so. Only last month, however, they announced that they are going to allow foreign nuclear waste to be buried in the UK. It is a pity that the way in which we deal with nuclear waste is not covered by the Bill.

There is no mention of penalising people who deliver junk mail, even when householders express a preference about not receiving it. We are the junk mail capital of Europe. We do not need all that junk mail and if someone says that they do not want it, we should make sure that their wish is respected.

Mr. Challen: What about "Focus"?

Sue Doughty: "Focus" is a high-quality leaflet and I am sure that no one would regard it as junk mail. [Interruption.] As I have just been told, it is informative and factual.

We welcome the freedom that the Bill gives to local authorities. Unlike the Conservatives, we welcome an end to the insistence that an authority should always contract out the functions of disposal. Surrey county council, for example, is bound into an inflexible 25-year contract that costs a fortune to maintain and does not allow it to move easily to more sustainable waste management. That is wrong. If a local authority has the skills and the ability to undertake disposal and can compete with private business, why should it not do so? We should create the flexibility to put better waste strategies in place.

There is another dog that did not bark. People have talked endlessly about allowing councils to make variable charges for waste management. In its report of December 2002, "Waste not, Want not", for example, the strategy unit identified a package of measures to reduce the growth in waste volume, including more freedom for local authorities to introduce variable charging and schemes that reward households that increase their recycling and reduce waste volumes. Such schemes included council tax discounts for households that compost waste, rewards and prizes for homes that recycle rubbish and variable charging schemes to reduce council tax for people who recycle the most.

The Secretary of State, however, appears to be going backwards. In The Sunday Times of 8 August 2004, she accepted that while there were political risks there was

What are those risks? There is unanimity among the main parties in the Local Government Association, which supports the proposals. In Parliament, however, that is not the case. Have the Government rejected the proposals out of cowardice, and are the Tories going backwards because they prefer to accuse others of stealth taxes than introduce constructive proposals of their own? Another Government scheme that could result in increases in recycling will not see the light of day.

Moving on to the problem of noise, I agree with the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) that the Bill does not go far enough. It deals with faulty burglar
10 Jan 2005 : Column 67
alarms, but not faulty car alarms, which plague some individuals. Excess road and air noise are a sheer misery for certain neighbourhoods. Constituents of mine who live by the A3 suffer day in, day out from excess noise—they cannot sleep and their walls rattle. That is not acceptable, but there is nothing in the Bill to deal with the problem. However, we welcome the opportunity to gate alleys and snickets. There was a successful pilot in Liverpool, where 5,200 alley gates were installed. Domestic burglary has been reduced by 24 per cent., but we must ensure that access is granted to people who require it. We must consider what happens when they no longer need access, but we must also make sure that the emergency services fully support such gating. They must be provided promptly with information and maps so that they know which roads are open and which are not. Too often, the police are not provided with such information, and they lose the opportunity to catch miscreants because they do not know where to go.

We welcome action on light pollution, but there are worrying exemptions. In Committee, I hope that we can discuss permissive action. BAA invited us to take part in an environmental safari at Gatwick airport, so that we could see how it had attempted to reduce light emissions and make the transition to lighting from renewable energy sources. It has undertaken a voluntary initiative to save money and reduce light, but exemptions should be introduced only after consultation. They should not be automatic, because much more needs to be done. If a car showroom is opened close to a residential area light is shed everywhere. The problem is not picked up in the planning application, and it is only when the garage has opened that the council says, "We never expected that to happen." People need lighting for safety purposes, but it should be directed downwards, not outwards and upwards.

The Bill should address the problems caused by other pollutants. After a weekend of devastating storms and floods leading to loss of life and huge damage—the House will sympathise with the distress experienced by the people of Carlisle—the Government have missed the opportunity to tighten local government powers on climate change adaptation and mitigations. Climate change is the responsibility not just of national and international Government but of local government. We are concerned about the way in which fixed penalty notices will work and we need to look at that in Committee. On Thursday, we will debate the report by the Select Committee on Environmental Audit on some issues covered by the Bill which, in general, we support. It needs to be improved, but it is definitely time to introduce it.

6.17 pm

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): I very much welcome the Bill, not least because tackling environmental crime has been a constant theme of my time as a constituency Member.

The very first lobby that I received after becoming a Member of Parliament in 1987 was from tenants of the Silwood estate in Deptford, who came to see me because 10,000 tonnes of spoil and waste had been dumped on the fringes of their estate. I soon learned that environmental authorities had limited powers to deal
10 Jan 2005 : Column 68
with the problem. Although I castigated them for failing to do so, I knew that it would be difficult for them to achieve very much. I was warned early on of the personal danger that I would face if I tried to tackle the criminals who were dumping the waste. A year later, I won a place in the ballot for private Members' Bills, and introduced powers to register waste carriers and to stop illegal carriers and dumpers in the Control of Pollution (Amendment) Act 1989. Since then, those powers have passed to the Environment Agency, but it is often local authorities and vigilant constituents who identify the criminals, which is why local authorities such as Lewisham have campaigned for extended powers for local authorities to tackle fly-tipping. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and her colleagues have responded positively and introduced a raft of powers to do so in the Bill.

Other people's rubbish is a constant affront to most residents, and local authorities have a hard task dealing with the antisocial behaviour of a minority of residents and businesses. The courts may not regard leaving piles of rubbish in plastic bags on the landings of communal blocks as a serious matter, but such behaviour is soul-destroying for other residents. It is also hazardous, as bags leak, break, stain the walkways, create smells and physical hazards, and attract vermin. Lewisham council has secured two convictions for such offences and has 13 prosecutions pending. The council has been using existing legislation but very much welcomes the fixed penalty notices in the Bill, which will enable it to deal much more effectively with residents and businesses that leave their bins and rubbish in the wrong place. Likewise, the extension of responsibility for clearing illegally dumped waste to landowners as well as occupiers offers the prospect of clearing up those gardens with which we are all so familiar in private properties that are often vacant.

Local authorities need to tackle other sources that give rise to fly-tipping, such as local businesses that fail to produce waste transfer notices and arrangements. Using existing legislation, Lewisham council has secured 10 convictions over the past year, with more pending. But Nigel Tyrell, head of environment at Lewisham council, points out that for a large waste producer it could be cheaper to pay the proposed fixed penalty fine of £300 than to have a contract with a bona fide waste collection scheme. Local authorities will have to judge whether the existing legislation or the new fixed penalty fines are more appropriate in such instances to secure behavioural change.

The illegal commercial waste disposal operators continue to cause most damage. Recently, residents on the Honor Oak estate in my constituency reported frequent sightings of a lorry that pulled off the main road into their garage area, switched its lights off, deposited a load of rubbish and quickly drove away, its licence plate completely covered with mud. That is the kind of operator that local council officers want to get their hands on. I am delighted to see new powers in the Bill for the immediate searching, seizing and impounding of such offending vehicles. All too often in the past, such criminals have evaded justice, particularly when the driver was able to say that he was acting on his employer's instructions. The removal of that defence is significant. It was excavation work in docklands 20 years ago that began the massive fly-tipping of spoil
10 Jan 2005 : Column 69
in Deptford. The much welcomed development of the Thames gateway now poses a similar problem for Lewisham. We will need all the new powers in the Bill to combat today's criminals.

Lewisham has a proud record of environmental activity and already includes the environment in its crime and disorder reduction partnership. Over the past nine months Lewisham has removed more than 5,000 items of graffiti within six days of their being reported, which amounts to 30,000 sq m of graffiti. It has held 15 graffiti-busting days with residents, councillors and local businesses, reduced the average time to remove fly-tips to 1.7 days, removed 538 untaxed vehicles and 1,165 abandoned vehicles, and—despite the fears of the Opposition that this is so difficult—successfully prosecuted 30 people for the abandonment of their vehicles and 83 people for fly-tipping and litter.

The new power to remove and crush hazardous vehicles will have a significant positive impact on our street scene, and new powers to deal with people repairing vehicles on the road will also be extremely welcome to residents who have to live alongside those nuisances, but although car repair shops are, thankfully, not on every street corner, litter and graffiti often are. It is a sad reflection on our society that the Government must legislate further to tackle those scourges and use yet more taxpayers' money to clear up after the minority of vandals.

I hope my right hon. Friend the Minister will see that the extension of litter offences is backed by a public information campaign aimed especially at young people. I hope, too, that residents will appreciate that council sweepers cannot return every five minutes to sweep up the litter of wrappers and fast food boxes constantly dropped outside newsagents and takeaways. Litter clearing notices and street litter control notices will, I know, be used to great effect locally. I am particularly pleased to see the power to restrict the distribution of fliers, handouts and pamphlets that can end up as litter. Recently, on a walkabout on the Crossfields estate in my constituency, I saw great bundles of fliers placed on the bottom step of the concrete staircases to the flats. In no time at all, such fliers are blowing all over the landscaped public areas of the estate and should definitely be banned.

Along with graffiti, fly-posting is probably the other offence that most ruins a local environment and creates an air of neglect, dirt and criminality. Lewisham council has half a dozen cases pending under current legislation, but that legislation, requiring the council to show that the beneficiary consented to the fly-posting, is highly deficient. The new powers should transform the council's ability to tackle this offence, which is particularly extensive in Lewisham.

The Bill is excellent. It tackles the many offences that ruin our local environment and cause such irritation and hardship to our constituents. As I have described, my borough is extremely active on a wide range of issues covered by the Bill and will undoubtedly do much more when it is given the new powers. It will also make excellent use of the revenue that it is able to retain from fixed penalty notices. All efforts to deter, detect and punish those involved in environmental offences are to be applauded, but we will never be able to do enough to keep our neighbourhoods clean unless we change attitudes and behaviour. I warmly welcome the Bill and
10 Jan 2005 : Column 70
hope that in due course it will be much used by our local councils, and that our constituents will join in the spirit of it as well.

6.26 pm

Next Section IndexHome Page