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6.51 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I knew that I would learn much during today's debate, particularly about agriculture. I confess to being very much an urban person. Indeed, on becoming a Member of your Lordships' House, I was a little surprised to be asked by one of your Lordships whether I farmed. I know that I am not the only urban Member of this House—perhaps I should say "suburban"—because the last two speakers and I live within about a mile and a half of one another.

I knew that I would learn a good deal from today's maiden speakers. I might have expected to learn something about potatoes, but I less expected a reference to biodegradable plastics in connection with potatoes. I certainly did not expect to hear a reference to Tracy. I have no doubt that the noble Lord will refer to Tracy in future debates in this House.

I am particularly delighted to be able to welcome the maiden speech of my noble friend Lady Thomas of Walliswood. I am glad that providence opened the door of this House to her. Perhaps I may share with your Lordships my belief that I owe my own political career to my noble friend. Her assistance with my first election for a local authority was probably directly responsible for the 22 votes that made up my victory.

We have inevitably talked much this afternoon about the new environment agency, or ENVAGE as we seem to be expected to call it in the brief. I have noted references to ENVAGE and to SEPA, the Scottish environment protection agency. As the Minister said, the environment is a consensus subject.

Partnerships are imperative. However, as well as partnerships, we need standard bearers and standard setters. We need targets as well as monitoring. I share the concern of those noble Lords who feel that the sights of the agency need to be set on real protection, not merely on reaction in the event of problems.

We have talked also about the fact that today's political climate calls for deregulation. I suspect that environmental protection is an area in which we need regulation in order to change our culture before we can think about deregulation.

We have also talked today about the objectives of the agencies. I share the concern of those who feel that the promotion of such objectives should be spelt out and that guidelines, guidance or management statements—whatever terminology one wants to use about wording that is outside the scope of the legislation—will not be as satisfactory as words on the face of the Bill. The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, referred to that point.

I am sure that we were all interested to hear the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, who talked about the need for the Government "to implement" their proposals. In the noble Lord's view, words are perhaps of secondary importance. His description of the experience of the NRA is salutary. I hope that when it comes to the environment agency the

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Government will confound the psychologists' view that the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour. I hope that lessons will have been learned.

We have referred to the cost criterion. The question should not be: are environmental benefits worth the money? but: can we afford not to provide environmental security? I hope that Treasury control will not mean that in this area the watchdog is without teeth.

It has seemed ironic to me for some time that we should have awaited the arrival of this new quango so impatiently while criticising the general role of quangos in our society. One area in which democracy and accountability will be affected by the new agency is waste regulation. As in the counties and elsewhere, local authority waste regulators in London will be swallowed up by the new authority. About 1,100 staff and a budget of £43 million for England and Wales will be affected. Waste is not a glamorous subject but it is important for many reasons, yet it is to be removed from the control of our local authorities. I fear that that removal will harm the success of the authorities concerned and that there will inevitably be a further reduction in local democracy.

Over the past five years or so, the waste regulators have had increasing success, helped by the new legislation. I am concerned that their work will be divorced from other work of the local authorities. We all know of the problems associated with waste sites, fly tipping and scrap metal dealers. Solutions to those problems can often be linked to other aspects of local government work such as planning, environmental health, recycling and traffic management. Removing waste regulation to a quango will not help us.

I join other noble Lords who have welcomed the announcement on legislation relating to the national parks. However, that announcement made me wonder about the purpose of the Queen's Speech. The Queen's Speech contained no references to the Bills that we wanted to see, but announcements of them appeared shortly afterwards. Perhaps, however, I am merely carping. I must say—this is not carping—that I welcome the fact that the Government are to alter their proposed legislation in response to public comment. I welcome the early publication of the Environment Agencies Bill. I hope that the changes will not be merely semantic, as the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, suggested. The fact that the Government are prepared to make such changes is a move forward.

One matter relating to the Queen's Speech which has not yet been mentioned but which falls within the subject of "the environment" is the Channel Tunnel rail link. There will no doubt be a huge amount of discussion about its environmental acceptability and environmental impact at local level. At national level, the question of stations will be very important. I use this opportunity to raise my concern that work on the development of a station at Stratford should go forward. I believe that the stations will have a huge impact on the success of the Channel Tunnel link.

Also on transport, I would have welcomed a mention in the Queen's Speech of the effect of transport on the environment. The speech of the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, was particularly welcome. An announcement

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of an integrated transport policy—perhaps a White Paper—would have been something that we should have been glad to hear. I accept that the Government show some signs of appreciating the effect of transport policies on the environment, but they are little more than hints and whispers. We need a loud declaration on the issue. The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, referred to the 1983 Conservative manifesto which said that air pollution problems had been resolved. That was about the time that the Clean Air Council was abolished. I wish that it was still in existence.

There was no mention either of housing, despite decent housing being as much a fundamental right as the right to free speech, although there might be some who would say that we do not have that either. The best reference I can make to housing would be to take some extracts from a recent open letter from the director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It is in advance of next week's Budget, but, after all, in this House we have to take what opportunities we can to mention financial matters. He talked of the singling out of housing benefit as a target for spending cuts, and said:

    "No doubt it has now been explained ... that the increase in Housing Benefit (to the individual) is the intentional outcome of cutting 'bricks-and-mortar' subsidy (to housing providers) which causes rents to rise... Total housing support to council tenants ... is costing you 18 per cent. less in real terms than in 1980/81".

Similar considerations apply to housing associations. The levels of grant have fallen from 75 per cent. to 58 per cent. over five years. Private borrowing has to make that up and that means substantially higher rents. Subsidy costs may be cut in the short term, but there are huge bureaucratic hassles and expense and greater costs in the long term. We now know that a low-grant, high-rent policy actually means increased inflation. That creates job losses, a higher retail prices index and higher public spending on index linked social security and pensions. When rent levels reach the point at which even those in full-time jobs have to become reliant on a means-tested benefit, work incentives are destroyed.

There needs to be a revival in the private rented sector. That requires something such as housing investment trusts with a tax-driven kick start—some support for real investment in that sector. With housing benefit, the Government should stop the trend towards more rent increases and swing back to bricks-and-mortar subsidies which provide better value for money. Best of all they should stabilise housing benefit costs by calling off council rent rises and cuts in housing association grant levels and forget any thoughts of boosting private market rentals for people on low incomes. The director says that those 1980s policies have run their course. It is now generally agreed that we need more than 100,000 affordable homes a year. A nod in that direction in the gracious Speech would have been welcome.

Finally, an omission to which I am bound to refer is that of local government. There is no mention of it, and yet this is the first Queen's Speech after the establishment of integrated regional offices—an apology for regional government. I cannot help but observe that if we had regional government there might have been a

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little less aggravation in connection with the local government review as we should have had a proper context for it.

We are lucky in this House to have joining us, although neither has spoken in the debate, two members of the European Committee of the Regions—my noble friend Lord Tope and the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington of Ribbleton. I am sure that their experience will inform our debates as well as that of returning MEPs.

There are inevitably major financial matters upon which local government concentrates. The single regeneration budget administered by IROs clearly does not cover the areas that it has replaced. Capping and gearing have been referred to. I wonder whether we shall not soon be at the point when a determined effort should be made to review the workings of the council tax to amend anomalies and unfairnesses.

I shall end by saying two things. First, I take issue with the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel: the greatest crisis in local government is that it is becoming such an impossible job that good people cannot be attracted to it; and, secondly, I should like to have heard the words:

    "My Government attach the highest importance to local government and local democracy".
On these Benches, we do.

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