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Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 884: debated on Wednesday 15 January 1975

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.




asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he has any proposals to assist domestic ratepayers whose rates increase by more than 20 per cent. in 1974–75.

I take it that the hon. Member is referring to 1975–76. He was kind enough to ring my private office.

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced in July our measures to help householders faced with rate increases of more than 20 per cent. in 1974–75. I have no plans to repeat those measures for 1975–76.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. I apologise for not picking up the typographical error earlier. Since, last year, he said that he was providing a lifeline to the unfortunate ratepayer, may I ask, whether in view of his forecast of a 25 per cent. average increase this year, he will come back to the House if it transpires that the average rate increase throughout the country is in excess of that figure?

There is a major difference between this year and last year. Last year's original Conservative Government's rate support grant settlement provided local authorities with £3,430 million which paid for 60½per cent. of the reckonable expenditure. This year the Labour Government's rate support grant settlement has provided £5,430 million—£2,000 million extra—which will cover 66½per cent. of local government expenditure.

Will the right hon. Gentleman answer the question put to him by my hon. Friend? Does he stick to his forecast that rates will on average go up by only 25 per cent., or has he any modification? If the rates go up by more than that figure, will he come forward with extra help?

I have no modification to make of that forecast, which was based on an important condition that I have always underlined. The figure is good if, and only if, local authorities keep within the totals of expenditure agreed between them and Government. The point about another relief operation next year is that if this kind of relief were to become an annual event local authorities would be strongly encouraged to set their rates as high as they liked in the certain knowledge that the Government would bail out their domestic ratepayers.


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what proposals he has for giving relief in 1975–76 to domestic and commercial ratepayers in areas of special difficulty.


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make proposals designed to ensure that no undue rate burden falls upon small shopkeepers.

The House has already approved my right hon. Friend's proposals under which our ratepayers, both domestic and non-domestic, in all areas, will benefit from the unprecedentedly generous rate of grant to be given for 1975–76 and the special increase which he has made in the grant for 1974–75.

Will the hon. Gentleman accept our congratulations that his party has now, through the evidence it has given or will be giving to the Layfield Committee, accepted the proposal which started on the Conservative side of the House that teachers' salaries should be paid by the Government? Would it not have made a great deal of difference and saved a great deal of time if, instead of criticising our proposal during the election, the Labour Party had accepted it?

It was not specifically that proposal to which we objected. It was the proposal put forward by the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) to abolish the domestic rating system without any idea of what was going in its place.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that in the part of Lancashire which includes my constituency serious fears have recently been expressed by responsible people like local councillors that the increase in the rates for 1975–76 is likely to be in the region of 80 per cent.? Is the hon. Gentleman further aware that a large part of my constituency is made up of farming land with a paucity of industrial development? The result is that any rates increase will fall largely upon domestic ratepayers and local shopkeepers who can ill afford such increases. Can the hon. Gentleman say—or, better still, do—something—[HON. MEMBERS: "Too long."]—to assuage the anxieties of these people and give them some assurance of future solvency?

All areas, including the constituency of the hon. and learned Gentleman, benefit considerably from the increase the Government have given in this year's rate support grant. If the hon. and learned Gentleman is arguing in favour of agricultural derating because his is an agricultural area and there is a heavy burden on the domestic ratepayer, perhaps he will submit that view to the Layfield Committee.

Will my hon. Friend accept my congratulations and those of the ratepayers of Sandwell metropolitan borough for the generosity of the 1975 rate support grant? Can he also find a few words of sympathy for the ratepayers of the Midlands generally following the increase of 40 per cent. in the water rate for 1975–76 which, together with an increase of 60 per cent. in the current year—[HON. MEMBERS: "Too long."]— means a total increase of 100 per cent. since the creation of the—

This makes a total increase of 100 per cent. since the creation of the Severn-Trent Regional Water Authority—another body created following the reorganisation of local government by the Conservative Party.

The West Midlands area did very badly last year, even when in his "rough justice" speech my right hon. Friend changed the amount of grant to the West Midlands—Sandwell particularly. This year I am delighted to say that the area has done much better. There are problems with regard to water, particularly water from Wales, which my hon. Friend's constituency receives, and this matter is currently being looked at by my right hon. Friend.

Housing Land


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will invite local authorities to designate land specifically for system-built low-cost housing.

I will consider this suggestion in the light of the review of low-cost housing.

Is the Minister aware that many local authorities are sitting on colossal land banks and are behaving like misers with this valuable asset? By securing the release of this land the Government would be seen to be tackling the housing crisis and helping the housing problem this year.

I am probing several instances of local authority-held land which could be brought into housing programmes more quickly. I should welcome any information from the hon. Gentleman in support of his general statement, and should be glad to probe the possibility of bringing the land more quickly into housing use.

Will the Minister also look at the question of holiday camps changing over to self-catering establishments? Purpose built chalets of 500 ft. super with two or three bedrooms could be used for permanent occupation if the present planning restrictions were removed. Some chalets are allowed to be occupied for 364 days but others require a break of up to 11 weeks.

That situation and its implications fall to be dealt with by the working party which we have set up under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State to look into a variety of questions concerned with mobile residential sites. Any information and ideas on these matters will be welcomed by the working party.

Transport Expenditure


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what principles he applies in deciding the level and distribution of local transport expenditure for transport supplementary grant in each county for 1975–76.

The matters I took into account are explained in the decision letter sent to all counties. I have sent a copy to the hon. Member and arranged for copies to be placed in the Library.

In view of the sparsity of public transport in rural areas such as Cornwall, does not the Minister agree that there is a need for the Government to introduce measures designed to widen the whole basis of the transport supplementary grant support so that a more flexible local transport system can be evolved?

It is open to all county councils to make grants to maintain rural transport. Unfortunately many of them have not done so. Those that have done so receive an allocation for that purpose under the transport supplementary grant arrangements. I agree that the structure of the TSG is far from satisfactory, but I am bound by the statutory provision enacted by the Conservatives when they were in government.

Will the Minister confirm that TSGs should not be used to subsidise fares?

The hon. Gentleman should know, perhaps even better than I because he was there when this was worked out, that the moneys are paid to the local authorities, which have great discretion in spending that money. It is entirely a matter for the local authority how the TSG is spent.

Roads (Construction And Repair)


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will seek powers to assume responsibility for all road construction and repair including secondary roads which are at present the responsibility of county councils.

Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that the stringent priorities which the economic situation compel for the national road programme are applied also to the maintenance and improvement of secondary roads? Is he aware that there are many instances where men, materials and money for road building are being applied to relatively minor roads when they might much more usefully be applied to long overdue major road programmes, such as the A55 running through my constituency?

Central responsibility for the maintenance of all roads would not necessarily lead to more money being made available. If, as the hon. Gentleman argues, the central Government were responsible for the maintenance of the 210,000 miles of roads in the country, that would be contrary to the generally accepted proposition that local authorities should have more powers of decision in transport matters, which differ so markedly from one area to another.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that where he is responsible for road construction he also has a duty to maintain the existing network of footpaths? Is he further aware that in my constituency there is grave disquiet about the effect of the Ripley bypass project on local footpaths? Will he undertake to investigate speedily the cogent arguments put forward on this subject by my constituent, Mr. Turner?

I confess that I do not have with me a clear indication of my hon. Friend's constituent's views, but I will refresh my memory on the matter and write to my hon. Friend.

Freight (Carriage)


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how he intends to implement his policy of transferring freight from road to rail.

I have initiated discussions between British Rail and about 100 of the country's largest firms to encourage greater use of rail. There will also be grants under Section 8 of the Railways Act 1974 towards the provision of private sidings.

Do the Government intend to implement the quantity licensing provisions of the Transport Act 1968? If they do not intend to use those provisions, will they amend the Act by removing them?

Those provisions cannot be brought into effect without regulations being made. The hon. Gentleman will realise that several years have elapsed since the 1968 Act was passed and that no steps were taken to that end when there was rather less parliamentary business than there is this Session.

That answer is not satisfactory. In my area certain rail services were closed down at a time when my right hon. Friend was encouraging companies to transfer traffic from road to rail. The only way to get an efficient integrated transport policy is to implement the quantity licensing provisions in the 1968 Act.

I am aware of the difficulties to which my hon. Friend refers, and which have a bearing in my constituency as well as in his. I have had discussions with the National Freight Corporation, Freightliners and hon. Members on this subject. That situation would not be remedied by the implementation of quantity licensing.

Will the right hon. Gentleman also consider the possibility of transferring a certain amount of freight to the canals, where construction costs are very much cheaper than they are for road or rail?

I should certainly welcome every opportunity to put freight on to waterways where that can be done with reasonable economy.

Although we have been great supporters of the internal combustion engine, will my right hon. Friend ask his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry to review the enormous sums which are currently being invested on capital account in the railways and consider whether it is necessary to increase the number of trains on inter-city services, many of which are running half empty, and to invest a further £100 million in the advanced passenger train so that we can get from A to B 30 minutes faster?

It is right that the railways should be encouraged to continue their work on the advanced passenger train, and I have authorised some prototypes. In my discussions with the Railways Board, however, I stressed that we are also concerned with commuter, freight and other rail aspects. I will convey my hon. Friend's view to the Chairman of the Railways Board. They are his responsibility and not that of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry.

Development Land


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he will now abandon the proposals for taking development land into community ownership in view of the fact that local authorities have submitted to him the opinion that the proposals will delay house building.

No, Sir. No local authorities have submitted to me the opinion that the implementation of my proposals will delay house building.

Has the right hon. Gentleman seen the reported opinions of the Greater London Council, among other local authorities, and the views of a wide variety of respected commentators who have expressed this worry? Is he aware that the White Paper is already delaying the forward housing programme because of its effect on land acquisition and on planning by builders which is necessary if they are to have a continuous programme?

I have seen the reported views of the Greater London Council on this matter and perhaps I could quote the council's actual views as stated on 12th December. The council said that it

"welcomes the objective of providing the opportunity through land ownership for more positive planning in housing as in other forms of development".
On the more general part of the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question, he greatly underestimates the extreme care taken in these proposals not to introduce measures or arrangements which would affect the house building programme. That remains an absolutely firm objective of the Government.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that last weekend the representatives of 600 local authorities took exactly the opposite view from that expressed by the hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury) and that their anxiety was in the opposite direction—namely, that public acquisition powers should be obtained by them more quickly and not less quickly?

My hon. Friend is quite right in his account of the conference which we both had the pleasure of attending. He is also right to say that from many quarters the criticism is the opposite one—namely, that in the transitional period we have made concessions to private builders to protect the house building programme which go too far. Personally I do not think they have gone too far, but nevertheless it is right to bear in mind that there is also that opposite criticism.

Will the Secretary of State say what additional recruitment will have to be made by local authorities in town planning, valuation and legal departments to implement these proposals? What estimates has he made of the additional rate burden which will fall on the nation because of such recruitment and the additional office accommodation that will be required?

There will, of course, have to be additional recruitment, as we have made clear, though I cannot put a quantitative figure on it. This necessity is one of the reasons for our having made transitional provisions in the White Paper proposals.

As for the second part of the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question, I wish to underline what I have said on many occasions—namely that, taking a reasonably long-term view, these proposals will not cost the community something but will be of enormous financial benefit to the community.

Ports (Nationalisation)


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he can now say when he intends to introduce legislation to nationalise the ports; and if he will make a statement.

Which of the ports now run by public bodies does the Minister hold up as examples of efficiency, good labour relations and quick turn-round? Is he aiming to try to make Felixstowe as efficient as Liverpool? Will he ensure that before he does anything he will undertake full consultations with those who are now working in ports operated by free enterprise compaines?

I am having consultations on a general rather than a selective basis. Those who represent workers in Felixstowe will be included in the consultations, along with those who represent workers elsewhere. If the hon. Gentleman took the trouble to look at Southampton as an example of a publicly owned port—and I can think of other examples—he might take a different view. But perhaps this is not a suitable occasion on which to conduct a Second Reading debate on a Bill which necessarily is not yet ready.

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that the British Transport Docks Board has a long history of remarkable success? As a result of recommendations made over many years to ensure accountability to the public in respect of nationalisation, should we not project this example? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the process should be undertaken in such a way that the maximum amount of discussion will be brought to an end at a reasonably early stage to enable nationalisation of the ports to be brought about in the national interest?

I endorse my hon. Friend's view about the operation of the British Transport Docks Board and the other publicly owned ports. I have always made it clear that, if I am to have the wide consultations that I deem necessary, it will not be practicable to introduce a measure this Session. Furthermore, the House will appreciate that in any event the Government have a rather full programme in the present Session.

Will the Minister undertake to leave well alone one port in particular—that is, the municipally owned port of Boston in my constitutency, which is and has for years been free from industrial trouble and is growing in importance to port users?

In my original consultation letter in August I made clear what was intended. The final phase will arise after consultations are carried out. Where a port is municipally owned, we do not intend to bring about any change of ownership.

Will my right hon. Friend bear two matters in mind? First, does he appreciate that it will require little effort to introduce legislation of this sort, because in a previous Parliament similar legislation passed all its stages in this House and was defeated in the Lords, and then came the General Election and we had to start the process all over again? Secondly, will he bear in mind that all workers in the docks are in favour of complete nationalisation of ports?

I am afraid that the matter is not as simple as my hon. Friend suggests, because in 1970 the proposal was to take into public ownership only those ports handling a tonnage of more than 5 million tons per annum. Because of developments since that date, we believe that it is now essential to bring into a form of public ownership all commercial ports and cargo-handling activities. The ports legislation in 1970 was complicated enough, and our proposed legislation will be much more complicated.

Motorway Programme


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will announce the motorway projects that are now to be abandoned; and if he will introduce measures to end blight in those areas affected.

The programme has already been reduced substantially and I have no plans to cut it further at present. Priority will continue to be given to schemes which will take heavy traffic out of towns and villages. I am very conscious of the problems of blight and everything possible is being done to minimise them.

Will my right hon. Friend accept my congratulations on abandoning the Aire Valley motorway scheme? Will he also accept that many of my constituents in the Stockbridge area of Keighley hope that his new proposals will end blight in the area? Now that the scheme has been abandoned, will the Department put back on the market houses and property which it has bought so that areas which have been blighted can gain confidence?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's kind words. In this office one gets all too few commendations. It is right in the present situation that the road scheme in my hon. Friend's constituency should be an all-purpose scheme and not a motorway. However, such a decision will take several months since we must work out a detailed line, although we are moving as quickly as possible. When there is no need to protect a line because of a change of policy, we would not wish to maintain properties which we have had to acquire. I shall be glad to discuss with my colleagues whether such properties should be sold or retained as part of the local authority housing stock.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that a year has elapsed since a public inquiry took place on the Archway Road widening scheme in my constituency and that despite numerous requests for a determination by the Department of the Environment none has been forthcoming? Is he also aware that major problems of personal hardship will now arise as a result of blight because of delays and the running down of the district and that there is mounting public anger? Will he give an assurance that we shall be given a decision one way or the other by the end of the month?

A great deal of blight occurs as a result of public participation exercises and is an inevitable consequence, although of course it is desirable that there should be the maximum public participation. However, if the public are given the choice of four or five routes and additionally are invited to suggest other alternatives, blight is bound to be caused while a scheme is being considered. I will certainly look at this particular scheme. If I made a decision within a year, it would be much faster than any such decisions by the previous Government, as I had occasion to point out from time to time.

As the Government are rightly looking for economies in public expenditure, and as motorways represent one of the few forms of expenditure to which there is a great deal of public opposition, would it not be wise for the Government in present circumstances at least to postpone all new motorway schemes until the economic situation has improved?

I think my right hon. Friend is unaware that the trunk road and motorway programme is now running at about 40 per cent. below what was forecast two years ago and that similarly local authority expenditure on roads is about 40 per cent. below what was forecast. It would be wrong to give the impression that we should not continue with the road building programme, because in many instances the economic and environmental benefits from those roads are considerable. Indeed, to implement all the requests that I receive in a month from my hon. Friends would take my allocation for a year.

Railways (Reopened Lines)


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many railway lines have been reopened in each of the past five years; and how many proposals he is currently considering.

Two in 1970, one in 1972, three in 1973 and one in 1974 were authorised for reopening as light railways. In addition the Railways Board reopened their Peterborough-Spalding line in 1971. There are two other current proposals.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is a sad record in view of the considerable need to improve public transport? Does he accept that if urgently required railway lines, such as the Walsall-Cannock-Rugeley line, are to stand any chance of being reopened, we cannot depend on local authorities or British Rail but that there must be additional Government money? Does he agree with many hon. Members on this side of the House, who do not accept the cry to reduce public expenditure, that there is an urgent need for a considerable injection of Government capital into British Rail?

I note my hon. Friend's views about there being no need to reduce public expenditure. Unfortunately I have to work out my programme from instructions which come from my right hon. Friends who think that there is a need to reduce public expenditure. I have every sympathy with my hon. Friend's interest. This kind of proposal must come from the local authorities and/or the Railways Board. Under the Railways Act, which we enacted last Session, I shall be required to find between £300 million and £400 million for revenue support for the railways under the new system.

Is the Mid-Hants railway, the so-called "Watercress line", one of the two proposals currently under consideration?

I am not sure whether that question should be addressed to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The two proposals which are currently under consideration are the Taunton-Minehead and Sheringham-Weybourne lines.

In view of the need, even at this late date, to try to repair some of the vandalism of the Beeching era, may I ask whether my right hon. Friend agrees that it is a mistake for British Rail in any area to sell off assets, to demolish station buildings or to remove the track bed or embankments of railways closed in the past which may very likely need to be reopened in the near future?

It is difficult to make a blanket statement. My hon. Friend says that it is a question of whether they are likely to be reopened, and that is the kernel of the argument. It must remain largely a matter for British Rail. I accept the great importance of British Rail, but I am rightly under strong pressure to do even more than we have been able to do to support road passenger public transport as well.

In view of the further closures which are being announced by British Rail—for instance the Bridport-Maiden Newton line, which is now to be closed in May, and the Alton to Holtwhistle line at the same time—will the Minister take action to ensure that the lines do not close, particularly in view of the problems facing people in rural areas anyway?

In the summer I cancelled the proposed closure of a considerable number of lines, but on economic considerations I did not feel justified in continuing the subsidy on the Holtwhistle line. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will let me know about the other line. I am not at the moment aware of the current position on that one, because closure proposals emanate from British Rail.

Public Transport Services


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what effect he expects the increases in petrol prices to have on demand for public transport services.

Does the Minister accept that the brevity and ineptness of his reply will cause widespread dismay to users of public transport throughout the country? Rural services are already in disarray and inadequate for their purpose. We have a situation where we understand—

May I ask the Minister to review the system of public passenger transport licensing to satisfy himself that we are making the fullest possible use of all the resources available?

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman should think that the words I uttered a few minutes ago should already have caused widespread concern thoroughout the country. That depicts that the state of our communication is rather better than I had believed. I accept that the inadequate provision of public transport is a serious matter and I shall be pleased to do anything I can to remedy the situation. However, I stress that even when more power is given to local authorities to determine these matters and to make grants to the National Bus Company or to subsidise services and so on—we did not contest the principle—all too frequently they are unwilling to do this. Therefore, it is not wholly a central Government matter. Apart from finding money, which I find a problem these days, if I can help the hon. Gentleman's constituency perhaps he will let me know.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the only logic in having a 25 per cent. rate of VAT on petrol is to reduce the consumption of petrol, and that he ought to be going much further in his cuts in the motorways programme so that existing scarce resources can be bolstered by the additional money for public transport services?

I hope that the package of fuel measures announced by my right hon. Friend will have the effect of substantially curtaining the demand for petrol. Indeed, my right hon. Friend and I were criticised because our measures did not go far enough. We are reforecasting the traffic requirements for the road programme in the light of the expected decline in mileage, particularly of private cars.

Does the Minister accept that the threatened increase of 50 per cent. in bus fares, due to wage demands on the public bus companies, will curtail the demand for public transport?

The hon. Gentleman has the advantage of me. I do not know about a 50 per cent. increase in bus fares. Certainly this would not be general. I accept that increases in fares have a bearing on demand. The most crucial thing is for public transport, wherever possible, to improve the reliability of the service. That has a greater bearing on attracting people from private cars to public transport than the level of fares.

Gipsy Sites


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what plans he has in connection with the number of authorised sites for gipsies and other travelling people in England and Wales.

As already announced, my Department has appointed an advisory officer whose main task will be to assist local authorities to tackle this problem. There will be discussions as soon as possible with all the local authorities in the main problem areas.

Does not my hon. Friend agree that it is appalling that there are still not enough authorised sites to provide for the existing gipsy and travelling population? In these circumstances, does he not accept that there is an urgent need for legislation to compel local authorities which are not yet providing sites to act, so that the gipsies do not continue to be harassed and the authorities which are playing their part are not forced to do the work also of those authorities which are not?

I agree that this is a problem. There are now 117 official sites in England and Wales accommodating 1,700 families, but well over 3,000 families have still to be accommodated. I do not know whether legislation is the answer. There is legislation already, and I would remind local authorities that the Act places a statutory duty upon them.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that in the long term gipsy problems will not be solved except in an atmosphere of good will on the part of the gipsies and of the communities in whose areas gipsy problems exist, and that judging from my constituency this will not be achieved by the bulldozing methods available under the statutory powers of the Caravan Sites Act? Is the hon. Gentleman having advice from his newly-appointed advisory officer on these problems?

Yes, that was one of the main reasons for his appointment. We hope that he will bring to the attention of authorities the best practices of other authorities and that he will have the support and respect of the gipsy population and of local authorities.

In view of the serious neglect by many county councils of their duties under Section 6 of the Act, does my hon. Friend consider that he should now himself, without further legislation, use his power of direction under Section 9?

We consider the use of that power from time to time but we much prefer local authorities to tackle this problem on their own, rather than risk what the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. More) mentioned, with the Department intervening and creating even greater disharmony with the local authorities concerned.

Is the Minister aware that one of the biggest sources of anxiety is that some authorities play their Fart and provide the places, but neighbouring authorities do not and thereby put greater strain on the good authorities? Is his adviser a gipsy, as it were, or a civil servant, as it were?

The adviser is certainly a civil servant; I have no idea of his racial origin. What the hon. Gentleman mentions is one of the things that the adviser will be doing, pressing on local authorities which are not providing sites and which are in problem areas just how unfair they are being to neighbouring authorities.

M16 Motorway


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment when he expects the public inquiry into the routing of the M16 to be completed; and what is the programme of its construction.

The public inquiry into objections to the proposed route of the M16 between the A10 and the A12 is unlikely to be completed for several months. Subject to the satisfactory completion of the statutory processes and the availability of funds, work on this length of the motorway could begin in mid-1977, with completion two years later.

Has the Minister received any complaints concerning the conduct of the public inquiry? Should any such complaints be addressed to him or to the inspector?

I think that there have been complaints, but the conduct of the inquiry is in the hands of the inspector. I believe that one or two objectors were talking of applying to the High Court, but so far as I know they have not followed that up.

Is my right hon. Friend convinced that the public inquiry is legal in every respect? Certain objections have been made in this locality, where there are strong objections to the motorway itself, that the inquiry was not being conducted in a fully legal manner.

I am advised that the statutory requirements were met in all respects, but if the relevant schemes for this length of the motorway are eventually made there will then be an opportunity for anyone who wishes to do so to challenge their validity in the courts on the grounds that they are ultra vires or that the law has not been complied with.

National Housing Finance Agency


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if it is still the Government's policy to create a National Housing Finance Agency; what its functions will be in relation to first-time house buyers; and what its relationship to the building societies movement will be.

I would refer the hon. Member to the reply given to the hon. Member for Melton (Mr. Latham) on 2nd December 1974.—[Vol. 882, c. 388.]

In view of the continuing recession in house building, as evidenced by the latest figures, would it not be a particularly good idea to get the market moving at what I might call the bottom end? Would not the provision of preferential mortgages for first-time buyers be a real step in that direction? Finally, how long after the General Election promise of the Labour Party to assist these people will we have to wait for it to be realised?

This Government have already given enormous assistance through the £500 million loan to the building societies, as a result of which mortgage lending is now running at a monthly rate about double what it was before the loan. However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is crucial to get the market moving at the lower end. That is why, on top of the £500 million loan and despite the much healthier flow of mortgage finance now as compared with a few months ago, I am discussing with the building societies and the builders what additional steps we might take to achieve the end in view.

Does my right hon. Friend recognise the truth of the old Lancashire saying "There's nowt so safe as houses"? Will he therefore propose to the building societies that they grant 100 per cent. loans, as many local authorities already do? This would do more than anything else to get the private house market moving.

I take my hon. Friend's point, which has been much discussed. However, having studied the question of what are the real limitations on the lower end of the market, I have become more and more convinced that it is not the lack of 100 per cent. mortgages, it is not the 11 per cent. interest rate or the size of the deposit, but is the general state of uncertainty created by the world economic situation. If people cannot see in what sort of job or position they are likely to be a year from now, they are reluctant to take on the risk of buying a house.

Rate Support Grant (Dorset)


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he can now say what rate support grant for 1975 will be available to the Dorset County Council.

Complete details of the factors to be used in the grant calculations are not yet available. However, an estimate based on provisional information indicates that Dorset County Council's 1975–76 entitlement to the needs element of the rate support grant will be in the region of £24·2 million. In addition the county precept attracts indirectly some benefit from the resources element.

To help both domestic and commercial ratepayers, will the Minister take further action to reduce local authority expenditure, in particular by transferring to central Government the full cost of teachers' salaries? Will he also call a halt to unnecessary expenditure on road development, much of which is causing widespread anxiety and upheaval in my constituency?

The first part of the hon. Member's question relates to a subject which is being considered by the Layfield Committee, but of course that will not I can only emphasise again the provisions affect next year's rate. As for expenditure, of the circular issued on 23rd December, to which my right hon. Friend has referred today, which urges on all local authorities the essential need to contain their expenditure this year to inescapable commitments.

Was the Secretary of State for Education and Science speaking on behalf of the whole Government when he said that it would be a retrograde step to transfer teachers' salaries in the way my hon. Friend suggested? If so, will the Minister take it from us that we strongly disagree with his right hon. Friend?

As I said, this is being considered by the Layfield Committee. Certainly it would not be considered for this year.

Lorry Parks


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what proposals he has for establishing a network of lorry parks.

I am considering what more can be done to bring about the establishment of a network of lorry parks following a recent meeting in my Department of those concerned.

Does the Minister agree that it was always an urgent necessity to have more lorry parks but that it has now become all the more urgent because of his recently announced decision to curtail motorways and other major roads, which means that lorries will continue to use unsuitable streets and will have to be parked at night in residential areas? Will he therefore try to get a move on in establishing this important chain of lorry parks?

I agree that it is desirable to make progress on the national network, but there have been initial difficulties in getting suitable sites. More recently there have been doubts whether such a scheme could be commercially viable. As regards parking in residential streets, I remind the hon. Gentleman that local authorities have extensive powers. I understand that within his constituency the local authorities concerned, Enfield and the GLC, are looking at various schemes.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, far from providing new sites, there is an attempt on the part of many local authorities to curtail existing lorry parks? They are turning them over to private residential car parks and forbidding the parking of lorries. There is hardly any point in introducing restrictions on drivers' hours if one makes them drive longer distances to find somewhere to park for the night.

If my hon. Friend will let me know of any particular difficulties, I will see what I can do. I stress, however, that local authorities are entitled to make decisions for themselves in matters within their jurisdiction, and this would appear to be such a category.

House Purchase (First-Time Buyers)


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what progress he has made in his discussions with the building society representatives concerning new initiatives to help young people to buy their first homes.

My right hon. Friend hopes to make a statement very shortly about the discussions he has had with building societies and builders about the present unsatisfactory situation in private house building, including the position of first-time buyers.

Does my hon. Friend agree that in place of that statement it might be better to produce a White Paper so that the House may have an opportunity for a debate? Will the statement or a White Paper include reference to the provision of timber-frame buildings—about which I made representations to my hon. Friend a little while ago—because there are hon. Members on both sides of the House who, having seen such houses, appreciate that they have many advantages, not least the cost advantage?

The point my hon. Friend raises will not fall to be dealt with in the statement to which I have referred, but I hope that soon afterwards we shall be sending out circular advice which would cover that particular point about building construction. I shall consider with my right hon. Friend the suggestion about incorporating any ideas we have on these matters in a White Paper, though I think that it would be better to await the contents of the statement before we pursue that idea further.

Will the statement include any reference to policies to help the homeless, the figures for which have doubled under the present Government's housing legislation?

I find myself at a loss for words to deal with the last point in that question. I had better ignore it because it was so ridiculously inaccurate. The question of tackling aspects of homelessness is being studied very vigorously. I suspect that it is being studied a good deal more vigorously than was the case under the previous administration.

Will the Minister, in any further discussions, urge building society representatives to explain to young couples that, whichever of them takes the mortgage, it is perfectly in order for the ownership to be in the joint names of both husband and wife?

I should hope that it would not be necessary for me or my right hon. Friend to have to explain that to the building societies. I believe that a growing number of building society mortgages are issued on the basis of joint ownership. This is an increasing practice, which is certainly to be welcomed.

Does the Minister recognise that his astonishment is not good enough? He must know that the Rent Act 1974 has made the situation in many of our big cities very much worse, increased the number of homeless and dried up the supply of furnished accommodation. Will the statement deal with this?

With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, it would be far better if instead of making general statements of that kind, either in the House or elsewhere, he would submit actual material to the Department—for which I have certainly called—in order that we may monitor the position and take appropriate action. We have not received evidence to suggest that the Rent Act 1974 has produced the effects to which reference has been made. It was only a matter of days from the enactment of that legislation that propaganda was being put out to this effect, before anyone could possibly have been able to establish evidence. I suggest that all those now making noises on the Opposition side of the House should submit evidence to the Department so that we can take appropriate action. So far, not one of them has done so.

May I agree with the earlier remarks of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and say that it is the factor of uncertainty that dissuades a number of first-time buyers from entering the market? Believing as I do that they have more confidence in borrowing from local authorities, may I ask whether my hon. Friend will increase the limit in respect of reference to his Department for local authority purchases of houses from £250,000 to £500,000? Will he also review the whole procedure of the purchase of houses by local authorities so that it may be streamlined and quickened and so that vacant properties may be made available to first-time buyers from local authorities?

It will be the position shortly that we shall have to review the operation of Circular 70/74 under which there has been this encouragement and provision for local authorities to expand their house purchase practices. It is certainly true that there are many empty properties in stress areas that remain un-purchased by local authorities or houseing associations, and there is considerable scope in that direction to bring them into housing use. I shall take note of my hon. Friend's suggestion that we should increase the ceiling limit on particular purchases, though I must say that under the circular there has been a considerable expansion of capital expenditure in this field, to a level which I believe will be sustained during the coming financial year.

Invalid Tricycles


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will now remove the exemptions which have been granted to exclude motor invalid tricycles from the safety requirements of the Motor Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations, in view of their high rate of injury accidents in comparison to small four-wheeled cars; and if he will make a statement.

No, Sir. Motor invalid tricycles are subject to all the provisions of the Motor Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations except the requirement to fit a speedometer in the case of tricycles weighing less than 5 cwt., and the provisions about collapsible steering columns in the case of tricycles steered by a tiller.

Does not the Minister agree that all the evidence, and even the latest report from his research laboratory, points to the inherent danger of three-wheeled vehicles? When will the Government carry out the first stages of the plan recommended by Baroness Sharp to phase out tricycles and introduce four-wheeled vehicles?

With respect, that is a rather different question. The question of policy on these vehicles is one for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services. It could not be met by any change in the Motor Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations.

The Minister will accept that the three-wheeled vehicles are not subject to the MOT test, as other vehicles are. Will he also accept that there is evidence that those who use these vehicles away from urban centres where they can be readily serviced are landing the taxpayer, let alone themselves, with very large bills as compared with the cost of the possible provision of standard four-wheeled minis with hand controls?

I am aware, though it is not a matter for me, that there is a preference for four-wheeled rather than three-wheeled vehicles. The vehicles which are maintained by the Department of Health and Social Security are not subject to the MOT test, because that would be a total waste of resources. But where they are privately owned and not maintained by that Department, like any other vehicle they are subject to the test.

Improvement Grants


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he will now consider extending home improvement grants to include the installation of insulation schemes.

The Housing Act 1974 requires as a condition of issue of an improvement grant that a property must conform to prescribed standards of insulation. Grant is not available specially for this purpose but the cost of insulation should pay for itself through savings on fuel.

Does the Minister accept that this should be a matter for the Department of Energy as well and that if we are to have a comprehensive energy conservation policy it makes sense to encourage people to save fuel by insulating their homes more effectively?

I certainly accept the general point that the hon. Gentleman has put forward. All that we are doing in this matter, not only in connection with improvement grants policy but in other respects too, is being done in very close consultation indeed with the Department of Energy. There is an interdepartmental advisory committee on this very aspect as well as others connected with it.

Is it not time that the Government stopped talking about this and got on with it, in view of the fact that our insulation standards are about the worst in Europe? The urgent need to save energy could be partly satisfied by giving discretionary improvement grants for existing homes.

I do not accept that it is necessary to pay out public money for the purpose, but I accept that there is a need to increase insulation standards in this country. This has been advocated for a long time, but it is the present Government who have taken action to improve insulation standards.