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Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 885: debated on Wednesday 5 February 1975

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

Environment

Housing Acquisition

1.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many houses have been acquired, or are in the course of acquisition, under the scheme outlined in Circular 70 of 1974; what is the total amount of loans for which sanction has been sought under the scheme; and what financial limitations there are on the rate of expansion of the programme of acquisition.

The returns so far submitted by local authorities in England and Wales show that under the general consent given in Circular 70/74 some £60 million was spent on about 7,400 existing houses from April to 30th September last. Some £20 million has been approved for acquisitions falling outside the general consent. The expenditure limits on next year's acquisition will be higher than those in use for 1974–75.

Does my hon. Friend agree that a total of 7,000 is totally inadequate and that a successful municipalisation programme will necessarily involve compensation on the same lines as any other nationalisation programme, such as by the issue of Government stock rather than by cash, as the cash involved would be excessively inflationary?

My hon. Friend and I have discussed that suggestion several times. I see severe drawbacks to that way of handling the purchase of rented dwellings, but there are aspects of it which bear further examination. No doubt we can pursue that matter on another occasion.

Is the Minister satisfied that local authorities which are acquiring properties are carrying out adequate surveys beforehand and are not later finding that they have landed their ratepayers with impossible burdens of repair?

This must vary from one kind of property to another. After all, one of the main objectives that the Government have set in this field and which we are trying to encourage local authorities to pursue is the purchase of properties which are in need of modernisation and improvement. Indeed, I would wish to see local authorities concentrate most of their activities on a programme basis in such areas. It would inevitably follow from this that a considerable level of expenditure would be involved in many instances in such modernisation, conversion and repair, since the properties in question would be in grave need of it in such areas.

Railways (Children's Fares)

2.

asked the Secretary or State for the Environment whether he will direct British Rail to extend children's half-fares from under-14 years of age to under the statutory school leaving age of 16 years, in order to encourage the use of this form of public transport.

No. It would not be appropriate for me to issue directives on detailed aspects of fares policy. Concessions on the lines suggested by my hon. Friend already exist for season tickets for school journeys and for family travel.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many people think there was a complete lack of logic in the failure to extend half-fare concessions to take account of increases in the statutory school leaving age? If he cannot direct that this be done, will he at least encourage it, bearing in mind that the years between 14 and 16 are extremely expensive for parents, so that the absence of these concessions is not only lacking in logic but presents serious practical difficulties for families? We want to encourage and enable people to use public transport, do we not?

I agree that we should take all reasonable steps to encourage the use of public transport. However, for journeys to school half-price tickets are already available, not only up to 16 but up to the age of 18, and there is a very successful reduced fares scheme, which is commercially viable as well, for students over 18. Thus the objective that my hon. Friend has in mind is met by British Railways. However, if she knows of any particular difficulties and will let me know about them, I shall certainly draw them to the Board's attention.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that that arrangement is not particularly suitable in Scotland? Will he bear in mind that the original reason for fixing 14 as the age was that it was the compulsory school leaving age? Now that it has been increased by statute to 16, surely the same logic and the same reasoning should result in the extension of this privilege. Will he try to remember that these fares are a very costly charge to the working man's weekly income?

As I have already explained, children who regularly use the railways to go to and from school can and usually do get half-price tickets. For holiday and leisure purposes they would normally, travel with their families, and their are similar family concessions available for peak periods which I think cater reasonably for this need.

One-Bedroom Housing

3.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will take action to encourage local authorities to increase their stock of one-bedroomed accommodation.

We will be issuing advice very soon to local authorties on ways to increase the stock of one-bedroomed and two-bedroomed dwellings.

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is indeed a great and an increasing shortage of one-bedroom accommodation? Does he agree that if local authorities were to increase their stock of this type of accommodation they could make better use of existing stock by transferring tenants from houses which are under-occupied, which would result in a rationalisation of the present housing situation?

I certainly endorse what my hon. Friend has said. I suggest also that in at least some circumstances it is a question not simply of building new stock but possibly of adapting existing large stock where the demand is not so great in order to increase the availability of small dwellings that way. Also, there is a much better provision in this matter in new construction by local authorities generally than there is in the private sector, and the advice which we shall be issuing will cover that aspect of the subject as well as local authorities' works.

I welcome the Minister's statement and I support the remarks of the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mrs. Taylor) since both one-bedroom and two-bedroom accommodation is very much in demand. The figures from my local authority indicate that over 100 applicants need only one-bedroom accommodation. Will the Minister please expedite his instructions to local authorities, which will assist them in this matter—which no doubt will arise in our debate tomorrow?

I certainly welcome the support from the Liberal benches and that which is given as a whole. I emphasise that the advice will be issued very shortly.

May I also welcome the promise of a circular? Might not the Minister encourage local authorities to take a more relaxed attitude towards lodgers in council accommodation, because this would help to maximise the use of the existing housing stock?

We are examining this aspect of the housing scene also as part of a general look we have initiated recently at the use of stock across the board—not only local authority housing stock but housing stock within local authority areas—to see how better it might be used for various initiatives which can be taken.

Channel Tunnel

4.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will now prepare a White Paper setting out all the relevant correspondence and details of discussions which took place from 26th November 1974 to 20th January 1975 between his Department, the French Government, British Rail and the Channel Tunnel companies, resulting in his decision to withdraw the support of Her Majesty's Government for the Channel Tunnel project.

No, Sir. My right hon. Friend has already explained how it came about that the British Government saw no alternative to accepting the companies' formal claim of abandonment.

Is not the Minister aware that there are—to put it no higher—different interpretations of events and that there is a belief that, given essential good will on all sides, a different solution might well have been found? Is he aware that moves are being made in the European Parliament and elsewhere to try to engender European financial interest in this project? Will he give an assurance that he will keep an open mind on these discussions pending an approach which is likely to be made to his right hon. Friend before the end of this month?

As to the last point, I have said several times that we shall be very willing to consider any such proposals for a European involvement in the costs of the tunnel but so far we have had no such proposals. As to the other point, I do not think anyone has denied that whereas the two Governments were anxious to reach a standstill arrangement, which would have got us over the difficulty of 31st December and safeguarded the rights of all involved while discussions took place, we did not get any communication from the companies until after 31st December, and that was a formal notice of abandonment. That was the difficulty in which we were placed. It was a difficulty clearly foreseen by the previous Government, because they made extensive provision for it in the agreement.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that although a decision not to go ahead with the project has been taken, men are, apparently, still carrying on digging, from both ends? Is it not about time someone told them to stop? [An HON. MEMBER: "NVT."] Although I can commend to my right hon. Friend some very worthy projects for consideration, either as workers' co-operatives or as candidates for the National Enterprise Board, will he please ensure that this is not one of them.

I think I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. So far, although we have had many helpful proposals about how we might proceed, no one has suggested a workers' co-operative. The reason why some work is still continuing is that, as my right hon. Friend has informed the House, we are desirous of retaining much information as to the work which has been done, and one or two tests are still being completed. I assure my hon. Friend, however, that this is not adding substantially to the costs already incurred.

National Bus Company

6.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment when he expects to receive the annual report and accounts of the National Bus Company.

Does not the Minister agree that, in view of the report of a statement he made to a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party about the grave condition of the National Bus Company, it is high time that a statement was made by him on the Floor of the House so that we might see whether the company has come to him to seek immediate cash assistance and, if so, whether the figure of £25 million is correct?

The hon. Gentleman has been a Member long enough to know that sometimes Press reports are not a wholly accurate account of what transpires in private meetings. But it is well known that the National Bus Company, like all public service transport undertakings, is operating at a loss in present circumstances. I am having discussions with the chairman. If the need arises, the Government will take the necessary steps to assist the company. Publication of last year's accounts would not assist either the hon. Gentleman or the House to assess the situation in 1975, which is our immediate concern.

Does not my right hon. Friend agree, however, that the reason for the present financial problems of the National Bus Company is the counter-inflation policy of the previous Government, which did not permit nationalised industries to increase their rates in accord with the inflation that was taking place at that time?

This probably was a factor in the deficits incurred by a number of public sector industries. But that does not apply in present circumstances.

Is the Minister aware that, at this time of great concern about the high cost of petrol in rural areas, Treasury Ministers are giving the answer that greater reliance will be placed by the Government on the use of public transport? In the circumstances of the National Bus Company and with more and more counties seriously concerned as to whether they can continue to subsidise local bus services, and at a time when the bus companies are coming forward with much greater demands for subsidies, what will the right hon. Gentleman do to preserve even the present limited fabric of bus services?

I am very much concerned about the problem. Only yesterday my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary was having discussions with the local authorities. He has already met the operators and the trade unions with a view to trying to find a way out of these very difficult problems. One of the difficulties is that it is recognised that in many rural areas it is not viable to run reasonable bus services and that the counties, as they have powers under the transport supplementary grant, should make subsidies to them. Counties which included this in their plans obtained a grant specifically for that purpose in the TSG recently announced. The trouble is that many counties have either cut back on their plans or are contemplating doing so. This is a great difficulty, because the whole concept has been that the counties should have some regard to the social service aspects of these routes.

Rent Act 1974

7.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he will expedite his proposed survey on the operation of the Rent Act 1974 in view of the latest representations about its effects.

The Department is already monitoring the operation of the Act as closely as possible.

Does the Minister believe that fair rents should also be a fair return on landlords' capital? If rent officers continue to fix rents which give a return of only about 3 per cent., how on earth does the Minister hope to arrest the collapse in the private rented market brought about by the Act, which is making thousands homeless when local authorities cannot cope?

We are committed to review the operation of the Rent Acts, and certain aspects of the point the hon. Gentleman has raised will fall to be considered under the housing finance review on which we are embarking.

As regards the loss of rented property from the market, there seems on the whole to be a fairly consistent experience in this through all types of legislative situation. So far as I am aware, the figures are not increasing now. The position has been, roughly speaking, that about 100,000 rented dwellings have left the market per year for the last decade or more.

In view of the campaign of vilification and misrepresentation against the Rent Act 1974, which has been mounted particularly by certain newspapers which should know better, will my hon. Friend undertake a publicity campaign to let landlords, particularly resident landlords, know the very considerable advantages conferred upon them by the Act?

I shall certainly consider that and call for a review of the publicity material that we have been using to see whether we can put across the facts about the Act more effectively. It is true that, due to the failure to be able to print the Act at an early stage, and also to some of the propaganda activities in certain fields, there has been misunderstanding by a number of resident landlords about their position. I believe that this is now being corrected and I shall do my best to encourage the process of correction.

Economic Development Committee For Building

8.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he will seek to attend personally the next meeting of the Economic Development Committee for Building on which his Department is represented at official level.

Would not such a visit allow the Minister to confirm the EDC's latest forecast of a fall in new construction output in 1975 of 6 per cent. over 1974?

I do not need to attend a meeting of the EDC in order to keep contact with all sections of the building industry, with all the various forecasts which are being made, and with work in that industry. I am well aware of the EDC's forecasts. They are gloomy. The situation is very difficult. I am not quite as pessimistic about the situation as these forecasts would suggest that we should be.

Central Lancashire New Town

9.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what provision is to be made in the Central Lancashire New Town in respect of hospitals, doctors, dentists and social workers; and whether these provisions reflect estimated population increases by 1986.

Proposals for the provision of health and social services for the estimated future population of Central Lancashire New Town are described in the development corporation's outline plan, recently the subject of a public inquiry. The inspector's report on the inquiry is awaited and it will be some time before final decisions are reached.

What advice was given to the development corporation about the planning of these facilities in line with the Skeffington Report? Were any recommendations made to the corporation about consulting people and organisations in the area with regard to the supply of these facilities?

The proposals in the outline plan are based on discussions with the corporation and also with authorities having responsibility for the provision of these services. Those discussions are of a continuing nature, because obviously as time passes the aspect may change. We try to mirror that, because my Department holds informal consultations with the appropriate Departments so that we have a full and continuing picture and the various priorities can be kept in step.

Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us now whether his announcement last year of the increase in the percentage of rented houses that he is to apply to all new towns up to a total of 75 per cent. is to apply to the Central Lancashire New Town?

I should not have thought that that question arose out of the Question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, South (Mr. Thorne), but if the House will grant me some indulgence I will say that the hon. and learned Gentleman should carefully consider what I have said. He will see it fairly clearly stated, I hope, in the consultation document on new towns and he will see that the basis is not a fixed proportion but that we shall eliminate as soon as possible the waiting list in new towns, particularly for second generation families, and that in doing so inevitably we will give greater weight to rented accommodation, which is needed in the new towns, than to houses for sale.

Pigeons

10.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what steps and research he has taken to control the activities of pigeons on public buildings.

Is not the Minister aware that the damage caused by these birds to public buildings amounts to over £20 million a year? Will he consider an amendment to the Public Health Act 1936, or perhaps follow the example of the French and put the pigeons on the pill?

I shall consider the points the hon. Gentleman has put to me. In the meantime, I hope that he comes to no harm.

Hardwoods (Planting)

11.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what steps his Department is taking to encourage the planting of hardwoods.

The Government offer a supplementary grant of £125 per hectare for hardwood planting under the Forestry Commission's new dedication scheme. My right hon. Friend's own Department plants many hardwoods and other trees—for example, along the motorways—assists local authority planting schemes and supports the Tree Council. Moreover, grants for planting in the countryside may be available from the Countryside Commission.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that excellent reply. I appreciate his Department's concern. Has his right hon. Friend had discussions with the Treasury, and has he pointed out to the Treasury that the effect of its capital transfer tax will be very damaging to British forestry and that all the good intentions of his Department will be frustrated by his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer if he is not careful?

I read with interest the hon. Gentleman's contribution to a debate on 21st January and I believe I am right in saying that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor said at that time that he would carefully consider all the representations which had been made.

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, as indeed I welcome the encouraging of every form of planting of small copses of hardwoods. Will he urge the bringing under proper planting control of large-scale planting of softwoods, which is terribly damaging over many parts of the countryside?

I shall certainly consider the question, as I must whenever my hon. Friend makes a suggestion, because of his well-known history of interest in and concern for the environment. I know that the planting of suitable trees in suitable places is a matter of great concern. I shall look at the problem.

Pedestrian Crossings (Essex)

12.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many applications for pedestrian crossings have been made and approved, respectively, in respect of the county of Essex during the past year.

Of 14 applications for pelican crossings, five were approved and three are still under consideration. My approval is not required for zebra crossings.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, for example, in Buckhurst Hill and Loughton in my constituency there are several spots where terrible accidents have occurred and it is very difficult to get appropriate action? Does not the Department think that this is rather over-centralised and that local authorities should have more discretion in such matters?

I think the difficulty in the example the hon. Gentleman quoted was that the proposed crossing was very near a junction and it would have given rise to traffic difficulties. The initiative in all these cases is for the local authority when it makes the site proposals. We have extended the use of the pelican crossing. As I have said, we do not seek to control zebra crossings. We have extended the criteria for pelican crossings and when we are satisfied that the scheme is working well we shall probably be able to relax that control too.

Bus Purchase Grants

13.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he is satisfied with the controls exercised by his Department over the administration of bus purchase grants for stage carriage operators.

Yes, Sir. The procedures have already been revised to reduce the opportunities for fraudulent grant claims. My officials are also discussing with the operators their estimates of future bus purchases.

My right hon. Friend knows that millions of pounds are involved. What about the case of Barton's, Britain's biggest independent operator, which last year actually made a profit out of selling five-year-old buses and buying new ones under the grant scheme? What about the Newport cases last November where, for example, in the Moseley case some £10,000 in costs and fines were awarded? What about the Don Everall case in which £2,000 in costs and fines was awarded—[Interruption.] Can I say to my hon. Friend—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]

Order. The hon. Member has asked three supplementary questions already.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the stories now circulating about dealers and operators who have had to hand money back and have still not been taken to court? Is he not concerned that a worthwhile scheme which should be helping hard-pressed public transport is being turned into a gigantic milking machine for filling private operators' pockets?

My hon. Friend tends sometimes to use colourful language. We have made some amendments to meet the point and there have been 16 successful prosecutions involving six operators and two distributors. If my hon. Friend has information which he thinks we can use to correct any existing abuses or possible abuses of the scheme, he knows that I am available to talk about these things. That is probably a better way to do it than by parliamentary question and answer.

In spite of what was said by the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Huckfield), many bus operators are in a desperate position and services are being drastically cut. People are not able to get to work, particularly in rural areas. When I raised this matter with the Prime Minister he suggested that I should take it up with the Minister of Transport. For once I am taking the Prime Minister's advice and I am asking the right hon. Gentleman when his Government will do something to produce a transport policy to serve people in the rural areas.

I think the hon. Member knows enough about the facts of transport to realise that it is easy to make a declamatory statement about the problems of rural transport, but it is not easy to produce a scheme especially when, perhaps for understandable reasons, many county councils are unwilling to make contributions to the social service this transport system would provide.

Roads (Sussex)

14.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment, following his decision not to proceed with the Channel Tunnel, how quickly he now expects to be able to announce improvements to the congested roads serving the port of Newhaven and surrounding areas.

As I told the hon. Member for East Grinstead (Mr. Johnson Smith) on 3rd February, we are considering the general implications of the decision on the Channel Tunnel.

Is the Minister aware that we have been waiting for more than a year since consultations about road schemes took place in my constituency, particularly for the relief of Lewes but also for the whole of the surrounding area of Newhaven? Is it not time that the Minister gave his decision on these road schemes? This is a social matter for the people involved. Will the Minister give a specific answer to the questions which he and his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State have avoided answering for far too long?

As the hon. Member probably knows, work on the new southern bypass for Lewes is expected to begin this year, and I expect construction of the Falmer diversion to begin during 1976. The Question asked what we had done since the decision on the Channel Tunnel was taken on 20th January.

We are considering this point. Hon. Members would do well to bear in mind that practically all hon. Members are in favour of road schemes in their constituencies but that whenever a line has to be drawn on a map there is the most intense opposition. If we are to take public participation procedures seriously—they were introduced by the last Conservative Government—this adds two or three years to the time between taking a decision to build a road and being able to begin construction. In addition, we have cut back the size of the road programme for reasons of general economic stringency.

is the Minister aware that British Railways can extend their port facilities without the necessity of planning permission by the local authority? Great congestion occurs in towns where such expansion takes place. Will the right hon. Gentleman undertake to meet a deputation which I will bring to him headed by the Chairman of the Shepway District Council, who can explain the situation personally?

I have written to the hon. Gentleman to say that we will be happy to talk to him about any problems arising from the Channel Tunnel. If on that occasion he would like to bring representatives of his district council, naturally I or my hon. Friend would be very happy to see them.

Rate Support Grant (Cheshire)

15.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he can now say what rate support grant for 1975–76 will be available to the Cheshire County Council.

The county council now has details of its initial needs element grant entitlement. The figure is some £46·8 million. The county will also benefit indirectly from the resources element grant.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that gracious and informative answer, but is he aware that the ratepayers of Cheshire, as elsewhere in the country, experienced massive rate increases last year? Even with a no-growth situation for all services, they will experience this year further massive increases, certainly in excess of 35 per cent. Will the right hon. Gentleman urge the Secretary of State to bring in special rate relief for domestic ratepayers because of the intolerable situation which faces them?

I do not think that Cheshire can complain too much about the meanness of the central Government. The grant this year is 47 per cent. higher in money terms that it was last year, and Cheshire has received £12 million through our increase order for 1974–75.

We are exceedingly grateful to my right hon. Friend for the extra money, which was exceedingly useful to the Cheshire County Council. The sooner we can offer a fundamental review of the entire rating system, however, the sooner we shall get away from the nonsense which requires very substantial grants from the central Government for absolutely essential services.

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend has said. We are all concerned about the effect of rates from whichever side of the House we come. It was for that purpose that the Layfield committee of inquiry was set up by my right hon. Friend.

Empty Housing

16.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what information he can give about the performance of local authorities in dealing with empty houses and flats.

About 4,100 empty properties have been bought under Circular 70/74 by local authorities in the first half of this financial year. A number of local authorities are organising special quick repair and lettings services. About 90 local authorities are levying 100 per cent. rates on empty properties. I am examining further initiatives which might be taken to increase the use of empty properties generally.

Will the Minister direct his attention to empty houses and flats which are already in the possession of local authorities? Will he endeavour to galvanise those local authorities into dealing with them urgently? Is he aware of reports of about half a million houses and flats in the possession of local authorities which are empty? Are these figures correct? If they are not, what are the correct figures and what are the Government going to do about this situation?

The end-of-year survey which has been undertaken over a number of years shows, according to the latest figures, that the hon. Member's figure is erroneous. The figure is about 1 per cent. of the total stock—that is, 1 per cent. of 5½ million.

The figure is about 1 per cent. of the 5½, million dwellings owned by local authorities. As for chasing up local authorities I shall be considering, as I have suggested, what steps I can take. I urge the hon. Member to turn his attention to his own local authority, where, I understand, about 1,000 empty properties have been on the market for more than six months and these could have been purchased by the local authority if it set its mind to the task.

Will my hon. Friend consider proposals which were put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun) last week to give local authorities power to requisition properties in order that homeless people might be housed in them?

I have considered requisitioning on a number of occasions over the past year. Each time I have come to the conclusion, having studied the matter very closely, that this would not be an effective way of achieving the objective I wish to achieve. However, I certainly hope to come to the House and announce initiatives in this area not too long from now.

Government Offices (London)

17.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many square feet of office space is rented by Government Departments in the London area; and what is the total annual rental.

The figures are 14·4 million square feet; and £39·4 million in this financial year.

Those staggering figures are no joke. To what extent has the Government's policy on dispersal reduced them in the past year or so, and to what extent is it likely to reduce them during the next year or two?

I cannot speak for the past year, but the Government's dispersal programme will lead to savings in London rents amounting to about £27 million a year, at current figures, by the time the programme is complete, and a total reduction of 4·25 million square feet is expected.

Various aspects of the matter need to be considered. It is not only a question of dispersal policy. It is also a question of the availability of capital to get Crown buildings provided, to avoid the leasing of buildings at high rents. But this is a much more complicated and more questionable area of examination, because it brings me into the whole area of public expenditure and the total allocations that must be made.

What is the current annual rental value of the office buildings occupied by the Government in London, as opposed to the rent paid? The Minister referred to the opportunities to build Crown buildings. Is he aware how long the discussions have been going on on this subject? Is he aware of the advantages in efficiency of operation in modern purpose-designed buildings that could flow from the Government's taking advantage of the opportunities open to them to build on vacant sites that they now own, or have the option to own, in central London for office development?

The construction of Crown buildings has been under consideration for a long time and has been the subject of economies under successive Governments over many years. It is not possible merely to say "Build more" without involving oneself in an expansion of public expenditure. It is not a cheap exercise. There are matters which constrain us and drive the Government into rented buildings.

I cannot give a full answer off-the cuff to the question about current rental values of properties that have been under-rented as a result of the business rent controls and the freeze. I believe that if rents were to be charged at current levels following the freeze the additional amount for 1975–76 would be about £6·5 million nationally.

Harlow New Town

18.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the expansion of Harlow New Town.

I am considering the development corporation's recommendations. If I decide to proceed, I shall consult the local authorities before making a draft order extending the designated area of the town.

Will my right hon. Friend, whose recent visit to Harlow was much appreciated, bear in mind that the expansion of Harlow has been under serious consideration for about 10 years and that it is vital to second-generation applicants, both sides of industry, all the authorities concerned and the population as a whole that a decision should be reached at an early stage? Can he say anything about the time scale for bringing the matter to a conclusion? There is considerable impatience in the area over the whole business and the delay we suffered before my right hon. Friend took over responsibility.

If I were to proceed to make a draft order, my expectation would be that the process would be completed within 12 months from now. I understand that I would probably be sent to the Tower if I discussed the merits of the case at this stage.

What representations has the right hon. Gentleman received so far from neighbouring authorities, interests and individuals? What attention is being paid to such representations?

I do not think that I would be acting properly if at this stage I were to make the matter public. I have said that it is a question which I must consider in a quasi-judicial capacity.

Molsworth Airfield

19.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment why the Defence Land Agent has failed to pursue his negotiations for the offer to the previous owners of any of the 636 acres of agricultural land surplus to Service requirements at the former Molsworth Airfield, in spite of the recommendation of the Defence Lands Committee (the Nugent Committee) on page 204 of its Report that those 636 acres should be disposed of.

There has been no such failure. Under the normal procedure for disposal of surplus land, offers are made to the other Government Departments and public authorities first. The Central Electricity Generating Board may need the property, and its decision is awaited.

Is it a fact that the CEGB wants the land for a nuclear power station? Would it not be a bad site for such a station? Is the Minister aware that the land has been blighted for three years? It is a good farmland. Why is the hon. Gentleman withholding it from production because of the speculative possibility of a power station there?

It is not a question of withholding it from agricultural use as a matter of deliberate policy because there is a speculative possibility of a power station. The procedure laid down has been followed by successive Governments. Questions as to whether nuclear power generation is a suitable use of the land should be directed to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy. All I would say is that if a decision in favour of such a station is made by the CEGB, in consultation with my right hon. Friend, the planning procedure must be gone through. Planning application must be made.

Thermal Insulation

20.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what action he is taking to encourage local authorities to improve thermal insulation standards in existing public-sector housing.

I would refer the hon. Member to the reply given to my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Lewis) on 25th November 1974.—[Vol. 882, c. 89.]

That was not very satisfactory. Does the Minister accept that whereas owner-occupiers have an incentive to spend money on improving their property with thermal insulation, because it increases the value of the property, there is no such incentive for tenants of local authority housing, nor is there such an incentive for local authorities to spend money on thermal insulation, because it is not the authorities who pay the heating bills? What will the hon. Gentleman do about this in the interests of energy conservation?

I think that the hon. Gentleman has got his facts a little wrong. The position, as I stated in the previous reply, is that the installation of central heating and insulation in existing council houses is already accepted for subsidy purposes if it forms part of a comprehensive scheme of improvement and conversion.

As to the position of tenants, there is nothing to prevent local authorities and tenants or tenants' associations negotiating arrangements—I know that some do—whereby tenants can undertake certain works on a reimbursable basis. I hope that if tenants go to their local authority with a view to undertaking insulation arrangements they will be suitably assisted by the authority.

If my hon. Friend sends out any circulars on this matter or any other within the ambit of his Department that result in local authorities having to spend money which they may not have taken into account in the period between the two financial years, will he also send one of the circulars to the district auditors in order that they may be informed that the Government have suggested to local authorities that there is a need to spend money? That kind of suggestion was made by the previous Government, when the Minister responsible sent out a circular instructing local authorities to spend money on environmental matters to cut down the long list of unemployed people, and because one local authority—Clay Cross—did that the district auditor has tried to haul its members before the court.

It would be improper for me to involve myself on the Floor of the House in matters which are the subject of representations before a district auditor.

I have no plans to issue any circular about thermal insulation, although I am sure that I shall be issuing circulars on other matters concerned with housing policy.

House Building

21.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what was the number of housing starts in the private sector in the last six months of 1974 as compared with the same period in 1973.

In the five months July-November 1974, starts in Great Britain were 38,900. Over the same period in 1973 there were 83,300 houses started. Provisional figures for December 1974 will be published tomorrow.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the building merchants' index shows that the decline in private house-building is likely to continue into the next six months of this year? What measures have he and the Department in mind to stimulate the building of houses rather than the demand for them, which the measures announced so far have had the effect of doing?

The implications of the last part of the hon. Gentleman's question are a little unfortunate in the present situation. He should recall, as was made clear when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made his announcement on 27th January, that the financial initiatives had been made after the fullest consultation with builders' representatives and building society representatives and that they were welcomed by both elements. We believe that the initiatives will contribute to boosting morale and the demand and provision of houses in the coming months. We in this House as well as the Government should be doing everthing we can to assist builders in that direction.

Does my hon. Friend agree that among the lessons to be learnt from the fluctuations in private house building is the complete inadequacy of private enterprise as a means of constructing homes for our people?

Certainly there are some basic structural problems on the financial side of housing provision and in the structure of the building industry as such. These matters will fall to be considered within our housing finance study, upon which we have already embarked, and in further consideration of other aspects of housing construction which we shall be initiating in future.

Does the Minister agree that under all Governments tens of thousands of housing starts are held up each year because of the actions of local authorities and his own Department? Does he accept that when permission is sought to erect a dwelling or to convert a property into flats it takes up to 12 months to obtain planning consent? Is he aware that that has nothing to do with planning as such, as every expert is aware, but is purely bureaucratic inefficiency? In order to help the homeless, will he try to be a reforming Minister and make a determined attempt to reduce the period that has to be spent in obtaining planning consent?

Both my right hon. Friend the Minister for Planning and Local Government and myself, and the Secretary of State, are very much concerned with the rôle of planning procedures. To deal with this matter in such generalised terms as the hon. Gentleman has put to the House is not helpful or constructive. If the hon. Gentleman likes to put specific case material to us I assure him that we shall probe all such cases to see whether there are lessons to be learnt and whether any action can be initiated. We shall certainly act.

Football Referees

22.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will consult the Football Association about its policy of sexual discrimination with regard to the appointment of football referees.

The Football Association is represented on the Central Council for Physical Recreation, as are the other governing bodies of sport. This council and the Sports Council are now considering the proposals in the White Paper "Equality for Women" Cmnd. 5724.

I am much encouraged by the Minister's reply. My only regret is that the Minister responsible—

Will the Minister impress upon the Football Association that it seems unfair, if not unjust, that men can referee women's matches but women are not allowed to referee men's matches? Is he aware that there is a young woman school teacher in my constituency who has been refused registration by the local football association? This woman has passed Class 3 of the Football Association's rules but has been refused registration merely because she is a woman. Is my right hon. Friend aware that there are 70 women throughout the country similarly qualified who wish to referee men's football matches but have been refused only because they are women?

I yield to no one in my approval of any measure that is designed to create equality for women. On the other hand, it is true that the Central Council for Physical Recreation has pointed out one or two complications that might arise in a strict application of this proposal relating to football. Those complications are at present being considered by the Government. I can promise the hon. Gentleman, if the House will not misunderstand me, that the council in question is engaged in a close and continuing contact with sporting women's bodies.

As a serious question, may I ask my right hon. Friend how many women are on the Central Council for Physical Recreation? Further, will he tell me how many women are represented on the governing bodies of many of the sporting organisations? Is it not indicative of the problems we face in straightforward teaching that so many of my colleagues on both sides of the House find this a matter for amusement?

It is, as my hon. Friend says, a serious subject. I am therefore happy to inform her that the Central Council for Physical Recreation represents all governing bodies in sport including those concerned exclusively with sport for women.

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that he sounds rather like a player who played for a team that started the season badly and then fell away? I do not want to become involved with Liverpool and Everton, but does the Minister accept that the Government should in no way get themselves involved in the internal arrangements of our sporting bodies and associations?

I was trying to point out that the advice of those concerned was perhaps the most important matter to be considered. As for teams that fall away, I think that the hon. Gentleman represents an excellent team on his side of the House that has fallen away recently.

Will my right hon. Friend ask the Football Association to appoint the hon. Member for Lancaster (Mrs. Kellett-Bowman) a referee, because she would not need a whistle?

Rates

23.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment on what evidence he bases his prediction that the total rate demand for 1975–76 should not on average exceed that for the current year by more than 25 per cent.

On the basis that the Government have made a major increase in grant, and that local authorities will keep their expenditure down to the rates of growth allowed for in the settlement and rate realistically.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Greater London Council announced yesterday that it anticipated an increase of 80 per cent. over last year? Rugby has already announced a 61 per cent. increase and Westminster has announced a 70 per cent. increase. The Deputy-Leader of the GLC has indicated that the London boroughs will show an average increase of no less than 50 per cent. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House where the balancing figures are to come from to bring about the Government's pledge of 25 per cent.?

It might be as well to remind the House of what my right hon. Friend said at the time, namely:

"if, and only if, local authorities stick to their side of the bargain, I reckon that the average increase—I stress the word 'average'—will be about 25 per cent.…"—[Official Report, 12th December 1974; Vol. 883, c. 788.]
Of course, when there is an average many increases are above the average and a number are below it. It is surprising that I never seem to receive any representations from those who are below the average.

Will my right hon. Friend point out the importance of making clear the basis on which these figures are calculated, as in some cases areas have been extremely fortunate in their position in the past?

That is a very fair point to make. While I am making fair points I remind the House—[Interruption.] I always make fair points. This has been the largest Government grant to local authorities in history. It has increased by virtually two-thirds from £3,431 million to £5,434 million.

Does not the Minister recognise that in spite of that the increase in the rates this year is likely to be the highest on record, with the possible exception of last year? Will he publish a list of the authorities that he thinks will be below the average so that we may see whether they exist and where they are? Secondly, may we ask what he is doing about local authorities such as the London borough of Wandsworth? That authority has frankly said that it has not the faintest intention of abiding by the guidelines and that it will go ahead fully with public expenditure and let the ratepayers jolly well get on with it.

I understand that there has been a denial of the newspaper report concerning Wandsworth. I wish that there had been denial in respect of the statement made by the London borough of Barnet a few weeks ago. If a local authority decides to act selfishly and against the national interest, this can only be at the expense of other local authorities. I hope that the local authority associations will take note of this.

Will my right hon. Friend accept that the expenditure plans of local authorities are long-term and that local authorities are now suffering from the foolish policies introduced by the Conservative Government, which involved high interest rates and the famous U-turn of 1972 when they sought to get local authorities to cut back on plans to which the Government had committed them?

It was for that reason that my right hon. Friend made the most generous rate settlement in history. What we are saying to local authorities is that they may stick to last year's figure, plus inescapable commitments. This has generally been accepted throughout the country and by local authority associations as being not only fair but generous.

The Secretary of State used an important expression about local authorities sticking to their side of the bargain. If those words mean anything, do they not throw a responsibility upon the Government to pursue such bargaining?

I do not deny that. It is absolutely right. The Government have said that for their part they will not force local authorities to increase expenditure where there should be no such increase. That has happened in the past.

In view of the unsatisfactory nature of that reply—and the right hon. Gentleman must agree with that—I beg to give notice that I shall seek to raise this matter on the Adjournment at the earliest opportunity.

Questions To Ministers

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will recall that on Wednesday of last week I raised with you the irksome question why it is that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster never answers Questions. I pointed out that even if an hon. Member were to table a Question he would have difficulty in getting an answer because Questions to the Chancellor of the Duchy follow an exhaustive list of Foreign Office Questions which usually contain twice as many as can be dealt with in the hour that we have available.

I was aware of the difficulty of tabling a Question to the Chancellor of the Duchy dealing with matters of North Sea oil profits and Finance for Industry. I have now been informed by the Table Office—I suspected that I would be so informed—that no Question can be tabled relating to the affairs with which the Chancellor of the Duchy is at present dealing. I have attempted to table a Question relating to his present talks with the American oil company leaders about the marginal profits arising from North Sea oil exploration. I am told by the Table Office that such a Question cannot be put to the Chancellor of the Duchy. What is more, there is no Question whatever that can be put to him relating to the affairs with which he is currently dealing.

It was suggested to me that the Chancellor of the Duchy will go through the present Parliament, dealing with all of these multifarious pieces of legislation and interference of one kind or another, and never have to answer a Question. We could reach the farcical situation in which, by devising 12 heraldic titles for themselves, the 12 most important members of the Cabinet could avoid answering Questions relating to their departmental affairs.

I suggest that this is not a trivial matter. This is a question of a man who, in logic and in practice, has one of the most important Departments in this Government. The fact is that not only I, but any other Member of this House, from whatever side is unable to table a Question dealing with the affairs for which the Chancellor of the Duchy is responsible.

I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman. This is not a matter for the Chair. The hon. Member must use his influence with the Patronage Secretary on this matter. [Laughter.] I am quite serious. How the Government arrange their business—

How the Government arrange their business and what Minister answers for what, and how, is not a matter for the Chair at all. No doubt what the hon. Member has said will be noted.